New Hong Kong soccer chief Mark Sutcliffe sets realistic goals
Sutcliffe has two years to put the HKFA's house in order and is keen to succeed even if it means scaling back Project Phoenix
It's not often someone starts a three-year contract with 10 months of it already used up by another person. But this is the situation Mark Sutcliffe finds himself in as he steps into the hot seat at the Hong Kong Football Association in 15 days. Sutcliffe will be the second chief executive hired by the HKFA. Gordon McKie left after only eight months, cashed up with an additional two-month pay-off as the HKFA hierarchy was keen to part ways with the Scotsman.
Hence the 10 months already subtracted from Sutcliffe's tenure. With the government footing the multi-million dollar cost of providing the governing body with a professional administrative set-up, the HKFA couldn't go back to the bureaucrats and say, "Sorry, we messed up first time around". It had to bite the bullet and start from where the last train wreck happened.
Yet, everyone hopes for a new beginning, a fresh start. Sutcliffe is confident he can work with all parties. His administration promises to be a conciliatory one. Where his predecessor stepped on toes, Sutcliffe has hinted at compromises with no harm to the end goal. That is to see a rebirth of football through the implementation of Project Phoenix, of which Sutcliffe was an author. He has been involved from the outset, as consultant, change agent and now as HKFA chief executive, the man who will execute the wide-ranging proposals in football's new testament.
But Sutcliffe is no prophet and has prudently held back on his promises. He revealed the way forward to the promised land would involve scaling back Project Phoenix and its manifold objectives. There were 33 steps in the original, wide-ranging document. Sutcliffe believes it is too sweeping and wants to condense it to a more manageable level. Momentum can then be gained.
The number one priority will be to give the people - the government, the fans - something tangible. Sutcliffe says it is imperative the football academy at Tseung Kwan O is fast-tracked. He has promised to have this up and running by the end of 2014. A centre of excellence where the national team can train will provide much-needed focus.
Already too much time has been lost on this project. Costs have mushroomed from an original estimate of HK$103 million a decade ago to HK$500 million. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is willing to press ahead and fund it, provided the HKFA can produce a viable business plan on how the facility will be run and administered. This has been the bugbear that has stalled the academy from being built. Sutcliffe is confident these obstacles can be surmounted.
A new professional league up and running by 2013-14 is second on his to-do list. This will be a challenging time scale. The new league was supposed to be in full flow this season but, for obvious reasons, it has been rescheduled. Even so, everyone will have to pull together if a credible and competitive 12-team Super League is in place next season. While teams like Kitchee and South China can fit in easily into a new professional league, the smaller clubs will struggle. They will need support, both in terms of facilities and finances. The government has in recent years been providing financial support to the smaller clubs, especially the district-based teams.
But handouts have to be spread evenly, otherwise the big boys feel they are the victims of their own success. It need not be just money but perhaps some sort of payment in kind.
Another goal for Sutcliffe will be the progress of the national team. He was here in 2009 and witnessed firsthand how the public got behind the side at the East Asian Games and the feel-good factor from the gold-medal success. This needs to be replicated as Hong Kong bid to move up the Fifa world rankings. Sutcliffe will not be starting from ground zero. His predecessor has already put in place people - national coach Ernie Merrick and his assistant Steve O'Connor - who are more than capable of getting the job done.
Sutcliffe will not be starting with a clean slate. That has been made clear to him by the fact that his three-year contract is actually a two-year, two-month deal. But he has promised to hit the ground running. He has promised an inclusive method of tackling the problems. He forsakes an us-versus-them approach that will make it easier for him to work with the people who matter - the big clubs. Having already been part of the local fabric, Sutcliffe knows his way around. That will be his best asset and one which hopefully will set the ball rolling.