Hong Kong coach breaks new ground in a man's world
On Friday April 22, 2016, Chan Yuen-ting etched her name into the history books by becoming the first female head coach to steer a men’s side to a top-division championship, after Eastern defeated rivals South China to wrap up the Hong Kong Premier League with a game to spare.
I don’t think it matters whether the coach is male or female … we don’t look at her any differently
The victory also ensured they avoided a nail-biting, winner-takes-all encounter with second-placed Kitchee on the final day of the season.
The success capped a whirlwind four months for Chan, after she was promoted from the assistant coach role following predecessor Yeung Ching-kwong’s departure to China League One side Meizhou Hakka in December.
In claiming Eastern’s first top-flight title in 21 years, Chan, the youngest coach in the Hong Kong Premier League, also managed to break the stranglehold of South China and Kitchee, who had shared the previous nine league championships between them.
Another first for the ambitious coach could be around the corner too because, due to a rise in Hong Kong’s AFC coefficient, Eastern appear likely to avoid the qualifying rounds for the 2017 AFC Champions League.
This, in turn, would see them become the territory’s first representatives in the group stage of the continental competition.
But things could have been very different had Chan, who was awarded a Guinness World Record certificate for her achievement this past week, followed her initial instinct upon being offered the job.
“At that moment I was really surprised as I never thought it would happen and at the beginning I actually rejected it because I didn’t think I had the experience and the qualifications,” Chan tells FourFourTwo.
“But the board just told me to be confident, that they believed in me and, whether the team was going up or down, they would support me … I really appreciated this.”
Chan was not the only one to be shocked by her sudden elevation to the head coach role, with Australian striker Andrew Barisic admitting that the players had no idea what had unfolded until the official announcement was made.
“It came as a surprise to us all; we didn’t even know our old coach was leaving and were told on the same day that coach Chan would take over,” Barisic, the club’s second-highest scorer with seven league goals this season, tells FourFourTwo.
“But I don’t think it matters whether the coach is male or female, the players treat her the same as we would a male coach … we don’t look at her any differently.”
Barisic – whose nomadic career has seen him turn out for clubs in Germany, Indonesia, India and his native Australia – is delighted to be part of such a success story.
He feels a gradual increase of female coaches into the men’s game can be expected over the coming years.
“There’ll be more popping up here and there. I think she’s really opened the door for other women because what she took on and what she’s achieved has been huge.”
A Footballing Love Affair
Chan’s initial interest in football came about because of an adoration for David Beckham, but her family rejected her pleas to sign up for a football programme when she was 13 years old, preferring instead that she concentrated on her schooling.
However, family resistance ultimately fell on deaf ears as she forged her mother’s signature in order to join a summer footballing camp, aged 15, and there was no looking back.
After coaching part-time for school teams while studying geography at university, Chan made up her mind to move into the industry on a professional level.
Her first full-time role came as a data analyst at TSW Pegasus before later taking on assistant coach positions at Sun Pegasus (formerly TSW), Southern District FC and eventually Eastern.
She also earned her AFC ‘A’ Coaching Licence in 2013.
By her own admission, Chan says she was catapulted into a head coach role three-to-five years earlier than anticipated, but points out that her ambition was always to remain with a men’s side rather than try to make her name within the women’s game.
“In Hong Kong, women’s football development is not going so well, it’s still at the beginning, so if you want to learn something and get good experience you have to go to a men’s team,” reflects Chan, who has represented Shatin SA in Hong Kong’s amateur women’s league.
A woman in a man's profession
Female coaches of men’s teams remain few and far between.
Portugal’s Helena Costa, unimaginatively dubbed “Mourinho in a skirt”, generated headlines around the world in mid-2014 when she became the first woman to take charge of a men’s professional side in French Ligue 2 outfit Clermont Foot 63.
I knew I had made history, but that was not so important. The important thing was just to do my job well
However, Costa quit before even meeting her players, claiming those in power wanted her as the “face of the club” to attract publicity and that she would have no real authority.
Despite her allegations, though, the board went on to appoint another female coach, Corinne Diacre, who is currently approaching the end of her second full season in charge after guiding the side to a top-eight finish.
Chan acknowledges that advancing upwards in such a male-dominated environment left her facing a number of obstacles – in addition to being younger than many of her players and having never played the women’s game professionally – but feels the transition was as smooth as possible.
“In some countries football is just a man’s sport, but in Hong Kong I’m lucky because the platform is good for us and women can progress quickly in their careers,” explains Chan.
“The players have also been really professional because as a man it is not always easy to follow a woman and as a woman it is difficult to understand what they are thinking.
“But they have never challenged me and have always shown respect.”
Eastern’s Hong Kong Premier League success added to the Senior Shield they won back in January as Chan claimed two trophies in a little over four months.
Their form had taken a dip ahead of the South China clash, however, eliminated from the both the League Cup and FA Cup within a few weeks of each other as the pressure mounted.
But after a first-half brace from Brazilian forward Giovane, Chan’s side held on to seal a 2-1 win and pick up Eastern’s fifth championship, but first since 1995, when they won their third successive title in an era coined the “Eastern Dynasty”.
“I knew that I had made history, but for me that was not so important,” Chan said. “I don’t think of these things so much because they’re just for the media; the most important thing was just to do my job well and help the team achieve something.”
As for the future, Chan has already got one eye on next season’s AFC Champions League, while boosting her own coaching credentials is also viewed as paramount to her professional development.
“I want to take the AFC Pro Licence at the end of the year, learn some new things and bring them back to Hong Kong,” she said.
“The next step is the AFC Champions League. It will be difficult to get good results because the opponents are so strong, but it’s important to gain the experience, save it, win the domestic championship again and come back the following year to compete once more.”
The 27-year-old will recharge her batteries during a short break to Japan following her side’s final game of the season against Kitchee before returning to begin her preparation for her first full season at Eastern’s helm.
And should Chan’s unprecedented success continue, not only is she sure to inspire more women to seek positions in the men’s game, but women’s football also stands to reap the rewards of her blossoming talent.
“For now, I want to remain involved with men’s teams but, long-term, I plan to go back to women’s football – in Japan or Korea, or even the UK or Spain. To be able to contribute to (women’s football) would be great.”
Photos courtesy of Eastern Football Club