Man with the plan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am


Trouble is the word that comes to mind when looking at the state of Hong Kong soccer today just as it was with rugby in Scotland in 2005, according to the Hong Kong Football Association's new chief executive.

Gordon McKie, 54, arrived in Hong Kong last week on an annual package of more than HK$2 million, fully subvented by the government under its Phoenix Project, which aims to revive the game from grassroots to the national team.

He arrives with Hong Kong soccer at possibly its lowest ebb: the national team's world ranking is an all-time low 168, behind even Asian minnows such as the Philippines, Taiwan and Mongolia. Those countries don't even have a professional league, while Hong Kong's First Division turned pro in the late 1960s, one of the first in Asia.

A member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland, McKie worked in the banking and manufacturing sectors before he was appointed Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) chief executive in 2005 in the wake of the governing body's administrative meltdown.

During his six-year tenure with the SRU (he left in June), McKie transformed the business with significant improvements in playing numbers and performances on the field. A strategic planning exercise was also successfully undertaken which led to a number of commercial agreements being concluded.

But his style of leadership also led to various criticisms from inside and outside the SRU, with accusations he was abrasive and dictatorial in his approach.

Now once again he has been offered a tough mission, to implement changes in Hong Kong soccer and get it back on the right track.

'I don't have any magic wand,' said McKie, who has been given a three-year contract. 'But I strongly believe the ingredients are here to change Hong Kong soccer and make significant progress.

'We have a lot of young athletes here and a strong economy with international big brands around. There is also a government partnership that can help increase facilities and improve their quality. Soccer is one of the leading global sports and I am sure there is a place for [it] in Hong Kong as soccer is one of the most popular sports here. All I need to do is to market the product properly.

'I don't want to be critical of the way soccer has been run in Hong Kong, but I want to say we need changes, not for the sake of change but change for improvement. I am not afraid of change, just like in 2005 when Scottish rugby was very close to being liquidated and I had to take a lot of tough measures to make the business work again.'

These changes, McKie says, will probably come in three areas: improving the organisation's governance, raising the standard of the game and strengthening the financial situation through increasing commercial sponsorship.

'They are all interlinked and there is no particular priority of which comes first,' he said. 'As the governing body, we have to make sure the organisation works properly, get the game growing, get more income so that we can reinvest the money to improve coaching and training of players, to improve growth and development.

'It's very important the HKFA has to be self-financing. The government funding is only a catalyst and we need to work with a healthy budget by securing financial support from the business world. We have to satisfy the sponsors that our organisation is changing, [and we] have to be more proactive - preparing relevant materials to go and sell the organisation rather than waiting for the sponsors to call us.'

According to consultants appointed by the government to look into what could be done for the game here, an additional HK$140 million will be needed from the government over the next five years to implement the Project Phoenix blueprint. However, it is hoped the HKFA will be able to reduce its dependency on public funding after that.

McKie has also called for more attention on youth development. 'We have to improve the calibre of the players to make them better and more skilful,' he said. 'Over time, we must make them believe there is a career in soccer which does not exist in the present system. At the moment, it is not a viable career for young athletes and we need to improve this.'

He is also aware of the recent case of an under-21 team player who has been charged with attempting to bribe teammates to fix an international friendly match. Some officials raised the issue of young players' low incomes, which mean they could be easily tempted into illegal activities.

'I can't comment too much on this as a formal investigation is under way,' McKie said.

'But it is always our intention to educate and communicate with our young players the meaning of soccer and meet with the authorities to demonstrate our zero tolerance and condemn such activities as they are detrimental to the sport.'

He admits it will not be easy to achieve quickly, but can promise what he calls a 'soft fix' by next summer: 'We can see the beginning of changes then in terms of the reputation and standing of the organisation,' he said.

'We are keen to improve the communications by setting up proper channels with all our stakeholders: the government, the players, the coaches, the technical people, the sponsors, the fans and even the media.

'There is the perception the association is not a well-run organisation, and I will change this perception as I have done similar things in Scottish rugby. At that time, the SRU had been run badly, with money being wasted. But thereafter, the business increased revenues and improved its reputation with key stakeholders including the Scottish Government, partner organisations and sponsors. It is a similar situation in Hong Kong, but here soccer is the No1 sport and rugby is not in Scotland,' McKie said.

'This is a new beginning, a new challenge for me. I am a general manager to provide the leadership. I am confident that with the full support of the HKFA board, we can see through these changes,' said the Glasgow-born executive, who played soccer at amateur level and is still a big fan of Glasgow's Rangers.

When McKie left Murrayfield in June, SRU chairman Allan Munro said: 'We have made great progress under his stewardship and enjoyed some significant highs in recent years.'

It will be interesting to see what the HKFA will say at the end of the Scot's three-year contract.