Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am

The dentist's chair has long gone. But Nicky Butt has still made the 'China Jump', and will move to Hong Kong next month. The former England and Manchester United star will carry with him weighty expectations.

No individual player signed from overseas has ever borne such hope on his shoulders as Butt. His new club, South China, will expect him to deliver them to the promised land - a place in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League in 2012.

Whether one man can shape the fortunes of an entire club remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the decision taken by Steven Lo Kit-sing, the chairman of South China, is the correct one. What Lo has done is create interest in his product while at the same time aiming for the stars. His dream is to one day play with the big boys in Asia, by making it to the East Asian section of the 32-strong group stage of the Champions League.

Lo wants South China to rub shoulders with the likes of Japan's Nagoya Grampus, Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal, Iran's Esteghlal, Jeju United from South Korea or Sydney FC of Australia, to name a few who have made it to the group stage of the 2011 competition. To do this, South China have to first make it to the final of the AFC Cup, the second-tier competition, which will then make them eligible to play in the qualifying tournament for the AFC Champions League.

South China, by virtue of winning the local league last season, are already in the AFC Cup and will play three preliminary-round group games before the knockout phase. Last year they reached the semi-finals before losing to Kuwait Sports Club in front of a full house at Hong Kong Stadium.

This is what Lo is banking on. Bringing Butt here won't be cheap. It is believed the 35-year-old midfielder will command HK$370,000 a week. This might be a pittance by English Premier League standards and by what he was paid at Newcastle United before retiring last May, but by Hong Kong standards, it is a princely sum. One which most people think is over-ambitious. But the dapper boss of the Caroliners has thought this out well. While he could on his own foot the bill and not even feel the pinch, Lo thinks he can recoup the money spent on Butt with the gate receipts he should get from South China's home games in the AFC Cup.

Lo did the maths himself. 'We will be playing three home games [in the AFC Cup] next year and if we draw a capacity crowd of 40,000 at Hong Kong Stadium, we can expect to break even.

'An average ticket for a game is HK$60 and, if we have a full house, we should get ticket revenue of around HK$2 million per game, which is enough to cover his costs,' said Lo, explaining his thought process behind recruiting Butt.

By those calculations it's not a gamble and Lo wondered why other clubs in Hong Kong were not following suit. Perhaps they might, especially if the experiment with Butt proves successful.

Already there are signs that will be the case. Earlier this month, Butt made a guest appearance against TSW Pegasus and scored a goal in the 2-1 victory that gave him a taste of what to expect in Hong Kong. While the win was satisfying, also pleasing was the crowd of 8,000, double what might have been expected, which once again suggested that Lo's formula should work.

So why don't the rest of the Hong Kong league follow suit? It's not easy for most as they don't have deep pockets like Lo and South China. To start a new venture, you need the seed money first before you can reap the dividends.

To get a player of Butt's calibre - he has won six English Premier League titles, three FA Cups and a European Cup (all with Manchester United) - is not cheap. Even though he is near the end of his career, Lo believes Butt will bring with him an aura of invincibility that, Lo hopes, will rub off on the rest of the team. Yet that is not enough. Lo has recognised that to get into the major league in Asia, he will need firepower up front. Without scoring goals you cannot go far. Butt is primarily a defensive midfielder. His job will be to marshal the defence.

This week, while announcing Butt's decision to join South China in January, Lo also revealed he hoped to sign another current English Premier League player - most likely a striker.

South China have traditionally been the best-supported club in Hong Kong. They are Hong Kong's Manchester United. Butt will feel right at home as South China attempt to make the big league and with it, proudly carry Hong Kong's name.

Even if you are not a fan of South China, you should support them for this cause - promoting the Hong Kong brand abroad. And if that happens, Lo can expect a big payday. The revenue from television rights, especially from the home games, would be massive and more than enough to compensate his boldness in signing Butt.

Lo insists it is 'not a gamble'. He should be right. Butt had some prior experience in Hong Kong - he was one of the England squad who came here as part of their Euro 1996 build-up. That team included Paul Gascoigne, who was involved in the infamous Dentist's Chair incident at the now-closed China Jump bar in Causeway Bay.

Butt, who was just starting out on his international career, wasn't involved in that incident. But there are plenty of other watering holes where he can celebrate a South China triumph - minus the Dentist's Chair, of course.