With just about every eye of the footballing world focused on Leicester City, about to do the impossible and win the English Premier League last spring, an even greater, albeit far less commercially viable, part of the sport’s history was taking place, less than 12 hours eastbound flight from London. On April 22, Eastern Sports Club avoided the risk of a final day decider in the Hong Kong Premier League, against reigning champions Kitchee, by defeating South China and securing their first league title in over two decades.
Nothing extraordinary, had it not been for the previous season’s runner up making a managerial change in early December of 2015. Yeung Ching-Kwong then made the move to Meizhou Hakka FC in the Chinese League 1 and Eastern promoted Chan Yuen-Ting to head coach. Chan was, in many ways, the logical choice. As Yeung’s assistant, and a coaching instructor at the Hong Kong FA holding the second highest level of certificate available for coaches under the AFC, Chan was next in line for the job. The decision still attracted attention, not only because the job was given to a rather inexperienced 27-year old, but also as Chan became something almost unheard of: the female head coach of a professional men’s football team. Four and a half months later, Eastern chairman Peter Leung, who’ve later described the decision as “a no brainer”, was proven right beyond any doubt as Chan lifted the Premier League-trophy, and etched her name in the history books as the first woman ever in charge of a male championship winning side.
A road less travelled, to say the least, so how did Chan Yuen-Ting get so far down it? Well, it’s been a bumpy ride. As with many football fans of her generation, the interest was kindled as an early teen by David Beckham. But her parents weren’t very fond of the idea of their daughter taking part in such unladylike activities and Yuen-Ting had to forge her mom’s signature to be able to join the Hong Kong FA’s summer program. Later, when Chan was studying geography at university, her interest evolved into passion. She joined a local team (women’s football is still at amateur level in Hong Kong) at 19, made her way into the Hong Kong representation squad, and even managed to make football the focus of her thesis paper (a study of how climate, population policies and geographical distribution of stadiums have influenced the sport in Hong Kong), before Premier League-club Pegasus offered her a position as a data analyst in 2010. Alongside the job at Pegasus, the young geographer attained a master’s degree in Sports science and health management as well as, in 2013, her AFC coaching license. These further studies were financed through private loans, as her parents still didn’t consider football a proper vocation, but rather would have liked to see her pursue a career teaching.
Her employer showed greater confidence and Chan advanced to roles in charge of the Pegasus U18-side, as well as assistant coach at Pegasus and Southern District, before making the move to Eastern in 2015. Then, after Yeung relocated to mainland China, the club didn’t hesitate to offer the job to Chan. She, on the other hand, did hesitate to whether she had the required experience and skill, and declined the offer at first. However, the board wouldn’t take no for an answer and convinced Chan that she had the full trust and support of the club, convincing her to re-evaluate and, finally, accept the position. Only days later, Eastern beat one of their top competitors, South China, by a whopping 6-1 in Chans first match in charge, to kick off a success story that less than five months later made history and is really still going on.
Since that day in late April, Chan has guided Eastern into the group stage of the AFC Champions League and, unsurprisingly, won awards as Manager of the Year in Hong Kong and Female Manager of the Year in Asia 2016. In addition to that, Eastern are four points ahead of Kitchee, who has one game in hand (to be played against Chans former club Pegasus on Monday), with two rounds to go in the Premier League. In other words: mark down Saturday the 6th of May in your calendars. That’s when Eastern will host Kitchee in what, most likely, will be a winner takes all showdown on the final day of the league season.
Chan Yuen-Ting herself prefers to play it all down. She says the foundation to Eastern’s success was laid by her predecessor and that she simply tweaked a few details based on what she learned from Yeung. She also thinks that having a female manager is not controversial at all, as Hong Kong doesn’t have discrimination, but rather, positions are filled based on qualifications (the stats tell a different story as women are, for example, about as common as unicorns in the boardrooms of the city, although establishing that Eastern simply chose the right person for the job may be enough analysis on this occasion). Also, according to Yuen-Ting, mother and father Chan have slowly started to take a different view on what football could offer a woman in Hong Kong.
This is the English version of a guest article i wrote for Swedish website SvenskaFans. The original text is available at: