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Mark Sutcliffe: United Hong Kong team in the Chinese League a possibility

Mark Sutcliffe by Chris KL Lau

Outgoing Hong Kong FA executive Mark Sutcliffe believes a united Hong Kong team in the Chinese league system may one day become a reality.

The Englishman is finally leaving Hong Kong football after a six-year stint during which he oversaw a period of relative success for the game with its teams qualifying for the Asian Champions League for the first time and the national team performing very well.

Speculation that Hong Kong teams may one day play in the Chinese League system has persisted for many years. On this subject Sutcliffe said, “That is a complex question and over the next 12 to 18 months, the HKFA really needs to make some decisions about the structure and format of the HKPL. As you know, we have difficulties every year identifying which teams will participate in the league and it is not great for reputation and not great for continuity and not great for investment in the game,”

“Hong Kong is on the cusp of being a big enough place to sustain a fully professional league on its own so either we have to expand the league or we have to invite more teams from overseas to play in the league, we have Guangzhou R and F  (HK) in the league now and people are more accepting of this and again, there was some resistance to that initially but if you  look at the investment they are making this season then that is a good thing and I think there are other places which I think would like to enter teams into our league so that is one option.”

Sutcliffe believes that if a Hong Kong team does enter the China league(s) then it would not be straightforward as the Chinese Football Association would have their own voice and opinion on the matter and those in Hong Kong would also have a say as well.

“Another option would be to downsize the HK league and put teams into the China league but we could not go straight into the Super league level anyway, we would have to identify which teams it was and would it be an existing team or would we form a new HK United team? It is not up to us anyway as the Chinese football authorities would have a say in it. If we want to remain an independent association as far as FIFA and the AFC is concerned to participate in FIFA and AFC competitions, then that is something that has to be addressed as well. Some overseas clubs have mentioned  partnerships and franchises  and I don’t think we should dismiss any option which would enhance the league.”

He has never been under any illusions that he could raise the game back to the levels seen in the sixties, seventies and early eighties; he sought to tap into the great potential which lies in the city; yet which is hindered by factors such as a lack of facilities, football not being seen as a viable career and ironically, constant comparisons to the glory days of the local game. 

In the world of 24/7 football media exposure whereby fans can access all the global leagues, Sutcliffe said he has  done his best to build up Hong Kong football standards on the pitch as well as off the pitch as a more viable ‘brand’ and product in a marketing sense.

Sutcliffe’s time in charge has seen the formation and launch of the Hong Kong Premier League, higher standards of professionalism in all areas of the game and unforgettable moments like Kitchee and Eastern’s involvement in the Asian Champions league. Sutcliffe cites Hong Kong’s famous draws with China both home and away in recent world cup 2018 qualifying as one of his favourite memories; in-fact, he went on to say that Hong Kong’s draw with China in Shenzhen was ‘the greatest game of football I have ever seen”.

Fan Support has been vital. Photo by William Wong

“My first great memory was the home game against China and it was just a fantastic atmosphere. Actually, we could have won that game and I know we could have been a little bit fortunate to get a draw based on the balance of play but that one was one highlight.

“Another highlight was the recent EPL Asia Trophy and the final with Liverpool when they walked into the Hong Kong stadium with 40,000 people dressed in red and everyone had the red illuminated arm bands on and everyone was singing ‘You will never Walk Alone’. That was a spine tingling moment. As a Liverpool fan, I have to say that was a highlight.”

Sutcliffe then reflected on Hong Kong’s improved youth system and if any players have stood out for him.

“I am not a great one for picking out individual players. I have been here for six years in a full-time capacity and I have been longer before that and I have seen some players come through the whole system,”

“So players like Tan Chun  Lok, when I first came to Hong Kong, he must have been playing at Under 15 level and now he has developed into a real prospect for the future and on the girls / women’s side,  there has been a massive improvement in girls and women football so generally for me, what has been most pleasurable, has been seeing the young players develop into proper professional footballers and a massive improvement in their skill level, commitment and physicality. We have had some great overseas players come to Hong Kong, obviously players like Sissoko and it is too early to see the impact he will have but for Forlan to have played in our premier league is a honour as well and he did very well.”

Sutcliffe has always known the limiting factor of player development in Hong Kong and raised them as a point.

“There are a variety of factors which hinder player development in Hong Kong. We find that parents are very keen to encourage their children to try lots of different things which does include football which is good but if you are trying to develop world-class football players then they have to be totally focused on football from a very young age and therefore it is not good for them to be involved in too many other activities.”

Sutcliffe stressed that simply putting in the hours over a consistent period of time would help young players develop further.

“The major stumbling block for players is the lack of opportunities and time. It is not just necessarily about the parent’s encouragement but there are factors like lack of facilities, a focus on education and people’s living conditions; it is not like where I was growing up in England where you finish school at 4pm and do homework for half an hour and then the rest of the time, you are out with your mates playing football.”

“Kids don’t have the same opportunity and are not playing with the same intensity; so it is frequency of participation and intensity and once they get to 15 to 16 then there is more emphasis on the academic side so for them to get to achieve this mythical 10,000 hours by the time they get to 18 years old, then it will be very difficult so they will always be behind players from other countries.”

The ‘Iceland’ model of football success has given hope to ‘smaller’ nations to emulate and Sutciffe believes Hong Kong can follow this.

Sutcliffe saw many memorable nights at Mong Kok Stadium. Photo: Ryan Kam

“I went to Iceland recently and kids there, from about five to six years old, they are playing four to five times a week and they are playing two to three hours every time they do it and so the hours they place in are significantly greater than the hours they put in for Hong Kong and that is the nature of the place geographically and culturally as well.”

A culture of success in Hong Kong would help HK parents / youths see that a career in football is possible in Hong Kong and beyond.

“When I was in Iceland, I got to see how and why they managed to be so pre-eminent given that it is such a small country with climatic challenges; there is the cultural thing and there is the fact that success breeds success. They have been successful and they have exported a lot of players to European leagues and people from Iceland  can see footballers  making a real career out of it and they did address the problem of facilities now so they can play throughout the year and they a large number of qualified coaches per head of population than just about any other country,”

“So for example, we stayed in a small town with 14.000 people and there were four football clubs and all of the parent have coaching qualifications so when they help out then they know what they are doing. It is all structured and player develop is from a young age and it is part of a pyramid.”

When asked if a similar system can be implemented in Hong Kong, he stressed that it could be.

“Hong Kong has its own football curriculum which is supposed to be a standardized methodology and it does start from a young age and it is downloadable from the HKFA website and any coach from Hong Kong can do it and it has model practices and drills so to teach kids from a young age from a small sided format. We are boosting the number of coaching courses we are putting on and we have some elite development coaches from overseas; from Japan and Spain, to help us look at how to improve from the sports science side and the overall structure. We are moving in the right direction.”

Sutcliffe touched upon the levels of professionalism amongst clubs in Hong Kong.

“We have to say that Kitchee are the most professional in terms of the investment they make and the methodology they adopt. They have a structured youth development format which is excellent and you cannot argue with the results. They won the treble last year and played in the AFC Champions league and they have their own training facility and if you compare them to the other clubs then they are a long way ahead,”

“There are other clubs making good progress, Eastern have been pretty successful recently and Southern have a decent youth development system and through the club license system, we are trying to make the clubs more professional,’

‘The criteria which we apply for the club license are based on the Asian Football Confederation Champions league club criteria so if they want to apply for and get a AFC club license then they must have  a proper youth development system in place with at least three age groups. Some of the clubs are working to that level but it is not easy as it requires money and facilities and it requires the vision and commitment from the club owners to do it in the first place.”

The national team have improved in the last few years. Photo: JRP Borthwick

Six years is a long time for change and progress and Sutcliffe reflected on his legacy and how he would like to be remembered.

“I really enjoyed being in Hong Kong for the last six years and I have been involved in Hong Kong football for longer than that as in 2009, I wrote the football  strategy for the government which lead to Project Phoenix,”

“So I guess all I want is to leave behind is football in a better place than when I came; the foundations of the game in Hong Kong so we have more people playing, a higher standard and more results for our Hong Kong representative teams and a better Hong Kong premier league and a solid development pathway in place from the grassroots to elite performance. So hopefully my legacy is coming here when football was a low ebb and providing the visions and strategies to do that and we have a lot more investment now than before.”

James Legge, one of the hosts of the Hong Kong podcast gave his views on Sutcliffe’s legacy:

“The past few years have been a time of relative positivity in HK football, when you look at the national team, the Premier League and laying the groundwork for youth development,”

“As chief executive at the time, it’s only fair that Mark Sutcliffe takes a decent share of the credit. He’s right to say that HK football is in a better state then when he found it. It’s also worth noting how honest and forthright he was in his public pronouncements, which is rare in football these days.”

Atom Cheung, RTHK radio sports presenter, also weighed in with his views on Sutcliffe’s time.

“I like that he created the Hong Kong Premier League as an avenue for Hong Kong clubs to play in the Asian Champions League. On the flip side, I still think the HKPL can do a better job in reaching out to local fans so they may change their perception about local football. I think the average fan still sees the HKPL as a rebranding of the former First Division without any substantial change.”

The new football training centre is something which Sutcliffe has worked determinedly on to bring to reality and he is delighted that it is finally complete.

“When I first came here, HKFA had less than thirty staff and now we have nearly 100 and we have six times more investment which is being reinvested back into the game and some of that is under the radar. We have had huge success in the development of youth football, women’s football and refereeing as well as coach development and the training centre,”

“When I first came here, I found a file for the new training centre dating back to 1995 and nothing had happened in that time! One reason I am happy to go now is that it is finished and it is there; it is tangible and bricks and mortar which no one can take away.”

“I have tried my best and it is for someone new to take up the reigns. I am proud of what I have achieved and hopefully laid the foundations for the future.”

Hong Kong football, always complex, is not easy to navigate and the impact Sutcliffe has made will be measured as the years progress. As with all roles, especially in the sometimes archaic world of Hong Kong professional football, there have been challenges to overcome, funding to be raised, obstacles to hurdle and egos to sooth.

Sutcliffe is set to return to England and take time off to spend with family and friends and set up base in rural Shropshire to take time to relax. There is no doubt that he will continue to monitor the progression of the Hong Kong game and hold onto treasured memories. Since day one, it has not been easy but he has stressed that he has given his best and many will appreciate his efforts.

Christopher KL Lau was born in England and grew up in both England and Hong Kong, and has a background in media, education and non-profits. He also is a freelance writer / photographer and has written for a number of magazines, websites and newspapers around the world on many subjects ranging from the arts to travel. Chris is passionate about sports and its place in society and is keen to promote both Hong Kong and Chinese football to a wider audience.

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