Eastern delight after depths of despair

IN the build-up to the 1992-93 soccer season in England, goalkeeper Iain Hesford's world was in turmoil.

He had not been paid for five months, he was signing on the dole and his club, Maidstone United, were on the brink of closure.

Then along came an offer to continue his career in Hongkong with Eastern - and the 32-year-old former England Youth and England Under-21 international has not looked back.

Hesford has played a major role in Eastern's unbeaten start to the season, conceding only one goal in 10 league and cup games as the side have marched to the top of the First Division with six consecutive league victories and won the Camelpaint Challenge Shield.

And the success story has continued in the Hongkong FA's Lunar New Year tournament for the Carlsberg Cup. On Saturday he kept yet another clean sheet as the Hongkong League XI beat Denmark Under-21s 5-0 in the semi-final and tonight he stands in the way of Switzerland in the final at Mongkok Stadium.

Summing up the transformation in his fortunes, Hesford admitted: ''One minute you are virtually out of work, the next you are up against a full international side.

''From a football point of view it's like a dream - five months ago I could never have seen this far ahead.'' Hesford made over 400 Football League appearances for Blackpool, Fulham, Notts County, Sunderland and Hull City from 1977 to 1991 before joining Maidstone United for the 1991-92 season.

He was an ever-present for them that season in the Fourth Division (now Third Division) and even had the distinction of scoring a goal from a long kick downfield against Hereford.

Financial problems were never far away, however, and Maidstone failed to start the current campaign after being wound up in August.

''There was a creditors' meeting on August 4 when I flew out to Hongkong,'' added Hesford.

''At the time there was still a chance the club would survive but the players had been advised by the PFA (Professional Footballers' Association) to look for other clubs because we hadn't been paid for five months.

''This meant I had virtually spent all my savings. You always thought you were going to receive the money so just carried on as normal.

''I was also confident the club would survive because they had given me another year's contract.'' Hesford and some of his teammates followed the advice of the PFA and signed on the dole for six weeks because they had stopped receiving wages.

''I sent a letter to one or two agents to keep my options covered and this was how the Hongkong move came about.

''My first game for Eastern was in China and, after we'd lost 6-1 to a team from Guangdong, I wondered if I'd made the right decision.

''But when we came back here the league started and it showed what a good side we really were.'' Eastern began with a 5-0 victory over champions South China and have gone on to beat all-comers, the only player to have scored past Hesford in a domestic fixture being Instant-Dict playmaker Townsend Qin, now a colleague in the Hongkong League XI squad.

Hesford's family is steeped in sporting tradition. His father kept goal for Huddersfield Town in the 1938 FA Cup final against Preston North End; his brother Bob was an England rugby union international, playing at number eight; and his other brother Steve played rugby league, at full-back, for Warrington.

After one appearance for the England Youth team, against France, Hesford was a fixture in the England side that won the European Under-21 championship in 1982, beating Poland, Scotland and, in the final, West Germany.

Now he is facing Switzerland and stands to share a cash jackpot of $400,000 if Hongkong win - a world away from those days of despair just six months ago.