Rangers aim for top spot

DOUBLE Cup champions Rangers are ready to cash in on Eastern's demise and become the most powerful team in the territory.

Rangers, who crushed Eastern 3-0 in last weekend's FA Cup final to add to the Senior Challenge Shield they won in May, have increased next season's budget from $7 million to $9 million.

'We want to take over from Eastern and aim to be the number one team in the territory,' declared Rangers' team manager Philip Lee Fai-lap.

Rangers chairman Lam Tai-fai went further by saying: 'We have increased our budget by $2 million with a chance of it being increased further. We can be Hong Kong's undisputed champions.' They have acted swiftly in the transfer market and snapped up two of Eastern's most promising local stars in defender Chan Chi-keung and reserve striker Tong Yuen-sing.

More signings are on the way as Rangers bid to return to the glory years after being down in the depths of the Second Division just five years ago.

While Eastern's future has been placed in doubt after the loss of multi-million dollar sponsors, the Lai Sun Group, Rangers are set to give one of their main backers, German sports manufacturers Uhlsport, more exposure and will be known as Uhlsport-Rangers next term.

Rangers have already signed two additional goalkeepers in Happy Valley's talented Russian Victor Derbounov and Kui Tan's Chung Ho-yin as backup to former Tottenham 'keeper Peter Guthrie who has now signed a one-season deal.

Talks are under way to keep former Bulgarian youth international Dimitri Kalkanov for another season and they have completed the signing of Happy Valley midfielder Alan Reis.

However, Rangers' attempt to lure Eastern centre-half Tim O'Shea has failed and he looks almost certain to join Instant-Dict.

While Rangers' hopes soar, league champions Eastern seem on a downward spiral.

When the Lai Sun Group, who contribute about half of the $8 million budget, revealed they were pulling the plug on Sunday, it represented the second crushing blow to Eastern in the space of 24 hours.

Minutes after the FA Cup final defeat, respected team manager Peter Leung Shou-chi announced his resignation, citing his disillusionment with the way the game is run in the territory.

Eastern goalkeeper Iain Hesford and striker Dale Tempest both have another year left on their contracts and their futures are expected to be settled at the club's annual general meeting on Friday.

Eastern's other foreign players - strikers Paul Nixon and Ian McParland, winger Ross Greer and defender Brian Hayes - are expected to leave and skipper Lee Kin-wo is almost certain to find a new club.

Since the demise of now-defunct Ernest Borel at the end of the 1992-93 season, Eastern were quick to make their mark and have been the most successful team over the past four years.

They won the league three seasons in a row and only the Viceroy Cup, the territory's most coveted knockout trophy, has eluded them since their recent domination.

Deadly rivals South China have dropped plans to sign Lee, saying he is too expensive but he could now become a target for Rangers - providing his $60,000-plus-a-month salary can be trimmed.

Eastern midfielder Lo Kai-wah has already left the club for Golden and fiery left-back Ricky Cheng Siu-chung has joined the Caroliners.

South China yesterday released defender Robbie Ironside and midfielder Dave Clarkson, who are both expected to return to Australia, as well as Croatian forward Nikolic Miroslav and Bosnian striker Anto Grabo.