How did you get into football?
I became a professional footballer in a roundabout way. I played with the HK football club youth team and then the HK national youth team U-17s. I loved it, obviously, but I was doing well in school so there was a real conflict whether to go down the education route or to stick with football. I guess thanks to the pressure in Hong Kong society as well as my parents, I ended up quitting football altogether to go to university in the UK. I gave up any aspirations of playing professional football. A few years later, however, I was working for RBS in Scotland as an investment banker but playing semi-pro football on the side.
You played semi-pro in Scotland?
Yeah, Eastern Scottish league which is just below the SPF third division. There were lots of good players, mostly guys like myself who couldn’t commit full-time or guys who were pros when they were young but had gone off the rails. It was ok. I got paid a bit of money but I was still working at the bank regular hours. To cut a long story short, I hated working in an office and came back to Hong Kong via Canada. I was working in the wine industry as a sales manager but also started playing part time for the Hong Kong Football Club in the local first division. I was picked up by my current team, Citizen, who watched me last year. They were impressed and signed me.
How professional is the Hong Kong league compared with the English Premier League?
It’s night and day between here and the top leagues in Europe in terms of infrastructure and professionalism, but that’s not quite the case when it comes to ability. You have some players in HK who could definitely play league one or two in England if it was just down to technical skill but there’s a difference in football culture. It’s more technical here, it’s slower and not as physical. The infrastructure, however, is way behind the UK. The wage levels, training facilities, medical staff, agents and so on are nowhere near the same level of professionalism. That’s also because we’re dealing with a small population - but football used to be really popular in Hong Kong. There were huge crowds in the 60s and 70s of 30,000 – 40,000 a game.
Why has interest in Hong Kong football declined so markedly?
I can’t say for sure what happened back then because I wasn’t around but I can tell you what’s happened recently. We’re over saturated with football on television. You can watch three Premiership games a night plus there’s Barca, Real Madrid, Juventus - and the standard is much higher than anything you'll see locally. It means people are more reluctant to come to games and of course people are lazy. It’s very easy to watch games on your sofa or in a bar with a pint.
Is their hope for Hong Kong football?
We’re at a very interesting crossroads. Hong Kong football had been in trouble for years with crowds dwindling, professionalism going downhill and the fortunes of the HK national team in decline but in 2009 we won the East Asian Games which reignited local interest in football. Big crowds got behind the team in the finals so the government started this project called ‘The Phoenix’.
What a ridiculous name.
[Laughs] I know the phoenix rises from the ashes and all that. They’re currently searching for a new CEO for the HKFA and a new national team manager. They’re looking worldwide and are pumping money into the local teams. For instance our new home stadium in Mong Kok is amazing (below). It’s state of the art with a new TV screen and scoreboard, nice new stands and the changing rooms are quality. They’ve got better showers than I have at home so football’s on the up.
How big are the attendances?
For the biggest games you might see ten thousand people but the problem is the fans are very fair weather so attendances vary hugely. If it’s us against a lower division team it will be just a thousand people. The powers that be are trying to generate more interest with 24-hour coverage on a TV channel so it’s moving in the right direction. Next year it will be called the HK Premier League as opposed to the First Division so the marketing is getting more polished too. They’re also talking about introducing minimum wages for all the players.
What are the wages like?
As in any industry there’s a big range but generally the wages are pretty low. I’m not going to lie; it’s hard to give a good answer because players don’t talk about money with each other - it would cause issues. If you are local player, not a star, however, it’d be about HK$10,000/month.
Do you have to train pro full time?
You don’t have to but most will. The clubs understand they’re not offering mega bucks so they’re flexible. Most of us coach kids to get by. For me, I’m in the HK$10,000-20,000 bracket but the top players in the league will get HK$40,000 – 50,000/month and that what I’m aiming for. That leaves you comfortable enough to not worry about full time work - you can just focus on football. On top of that you also have the imported footballers, the expats, who can earn HK$50,000- 60,000.
Where do most foreign players come from?
The vast majority of foreign players come from Africa - particularly Nigeria and Ghana - and Brazil. To the Japanese and Chinese, Brazilian football players are still their idols. They represent skill and flair and that’s what people want to see. They’re guys who don’t make the cut over there but are still really good footballers so come here instead.
What does it feel like to become a pro footballer at the age of 27?
It’s my first season as a pro footballer and I’m loving life at the moment. It’s every boy’s dream, certainly British boys. On a personal note I want to establish myself in this division as well as become a key player for Citizen. From that point I’d like to become one of the most recognized players in the league and then hopefully play for the national side. I’d give up my British citizenship to play for HK which would be a big deal but having been born and raised in HK - and having played for the youth team - I’d love to play for the full national team. For me it would be a big achievement to put on the national jersey.
How cut throat is it for managers in HK?
Well, our manger is the owners’ son so we have stability [smiles]. Other clubs are certainly very unstable, and the managers change all the time but it’s not as short term as it is in the UK. Here you get one year and if you’re no good then you’re out. You don’t really see managers chopped and changed half way through a season.
How does your manager approach a game?
Before a game he’ll take us through the relevant DVD and come up with some ideas on how to tackle the opposition. He’ll tell us the line up the day before which means everyone can prepare. A lot of managers will tell you an hour before kick-off and although our manager has done that before - he generally knows what he wants to do. I prefer it that way around because it gives you time to focus.
Any extraordinary team talks?
It depends on how we’re playing but I had manager in Scotland who had a player up against the wall by his throat. I’ve also had managers here and in Scotland kicking things at lockers. Throwing things at lockers. It can be real hair dryer treatment, you know singling people out…
Have you been given an absolute grilling?
I don’t think I have actually. I suppose that’s good - maybe I haven’t had enough of a shocker - but I have definitely seen other boys get singled out. Generally when the manager comes in raging it’s because the team is sh*t but you know you’ve been sh*t. Everyone goes in with their head down and you’re waiting for it because all the players go in first. You sit for a minute or two, waiting for the manager to come in, and you’re thinking, ‘this is going to be bad. All hell will break loose.’
On the whole though managers are quite calm. If you throw a tantrum every week then players become immune to it and it doesn’t have the desired effect. Equally, sometimes you go in at half time losing but the manager will say you’ve been playing fantastically. They see things differently and might be happy with your performance even if you’re one or two down because you might be playing against a top side. The western coaches are more prone to flying off the handle but when the local guys go for it then it’s quite spectacular.
What’s your favorite?
TV Show: I love good comedy. Entourage is goods lads material and Dexter’s great.
Football player: The best player in the world is Messi, hands down, but he’s just so unreal I can’t even relate to him. He is like a PlayStation footballer but my favorite player is Xavi from Barca. He never gives the ball away.
Hobby: We’ve got a new puppy which has taken over my life. (Michael and his fiancée).
Holiday: Bali for the beaches and people.
If you could pass on one characteristic you think you have to your children what would it be?
Independent thought. There’ so much external pressure in life so it can difficult to make up your own mind.
If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?
Nietzsche, love his work.
What product can you not do without?
Deodorant. I sweat a lot.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian wood – brilliant.
Where in HK do you keep going back to?
The south side of the island, Shek-O, Stanley, South Bay – it feels like you’ve been somewhere completely different.
What would you most like to change about HK apart from pollution?
Well that was what I was going to say. I would actually stay here if it wasn’t polluted. It’s the only reason I wouldn’t settle down in HK. Pollution aside, the other thing would be manners. People are just so rude to each other in Hong Kong.
What’s your favourite bar in HK?
Café Grey at Upper House hotel but it’s too expensive be a regular thing.