WHAT IS IT like to have been a footballer who has played with top British clubs, to have felt the turf of Wembley beneath your studs and then, at the exact moment when you start to understand how much it really means to you, to start inexorably sliding down the league table? Tony Sealy knows. He's probably the best person in Hong Kong to ask about that slippery world of transient gods and fleeting tragedy which is currently holding most of the globe in its thrall. For a moment, he felt the breath of success on his cheek; its imprint stays forever. He was worried that he might sound conceited. 'I was never a big-time player,' he said in our pre-interview warm-up while we were discussing conversational tactics. 'I wasn't playing for England or for a glamorous side like Manchester United or Chelsea, sides with kudos or prestige.' But if you think of all the little boys who were playing football in Britain in the early 1970s and divide those dreams of success by a very large number to reach a very tiny number, then Sealy is contained within your answer. He was that good. Even I had heard of the clubs - Southampton, Crystal Palace, Queen's Park Rangers - which are the litany of his sporting life. We met at the Hong Kong Football Club where he is sports manager. He's 39 and he's been doing interviews since he was in his teens. 'From about 13 or 14, I became a little bit of a celebrity due to the fact that I was scoring goals. The TV cameras came round, the newspapers paid attention, it brought a lot of prestige. But I didn't realise what I was, that's the beauty of it. I was that naive. I just loved football.' He grew up in Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the northeast of England. His father is from Barbados. 'I've never had a problem with racism per se. There were only two black kids at school, so there was curiosity rather than racism. Anyway, school's easier because you know what kids are thinking, it's simple. When you're older, it's more ... subtle.' Though not, of course, on the football terraces, where he was regularly referred to as 'a black ape' and wittily greeted with hurled bananas. 'Now there are policy groups which monitor chanting in the crowd,' remarks Sealy. 'Unheard-of in my day.' He was talent-spotted by Southampton, a Division One club (when that still meant first rather than second - behind the Premier League - as it strangely does now), which was one in the eye for his careers officer who had suggested that his options were either working in the shipyards or becoming an electrician. When he was 19, he came on as a substitute at Wembley for the last 12 minutes of the 1979 League Cup final against Nottingham Forest, which Southampton lost 3-2. 'It's all a blur. I do wish I could get there now, boy, I'd enjoy it.' At 21, he had a four-bedroomed house, two cars and never less than ?100 (HK$1,260) in his pocket. He'd already met Michel, who is still his wife, so he wasn't the stuff of News Of The World exclusives. Still, he must have been over the moon about his circumstances. 'At 19 and 20, you're at the height of your earning potential, at 28, 29, you're peaking. But what the hell are you going to do for the next 50 years? As you get older, it's a 180-degree reversal. You have all the fears and worries at 35 that you should have had at 21.' I never saw him play but judging by the way he hopped between clubs he must have been a nifty little mover on the pitch. He told me he'd been with 10 league clubs so I dutifully began a list and every time I asked how long he'd stayed, he replied, 'About two years.' Is this normal? 'Nah, I move. I've never wanted to be second best. I don't want to wait in anyone's reserves. Football's about winning. A winning team at the top of the second division is far more enjoyable than doom and gloom in a dressing room in the first division every week.' Terry Venables bought him twice (which clubs?) but later they fell out, and he went to Fulham and Leicester City, then Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. Was his body-clock ticking? 'Yeah, and it sounds like Big Ben when you get to 30. Then I had a very bad injury' - he waves a hand vaguely over his lap (it was a hernia) - 'and came back to England and that's when it all came down.' We're not talking a dramatic, or indeed public, fall from grace; this isn't a tale of George Best or Justin Fashanu, who hanged himself last month in a London garage, or Gazza wailing in the British tabloids after 'kebabgate' last week. But Sealy's was a much more typical withering. It's death by a thousand cuts: a reduction in pay, in perks, in standard of living. He was existing in digs, hauling himself and his scar tissue out of bed on chilly Saturdays to have rings run round him by younger men. 'In the early days, it's all glamour, wanting to play for England. Then you see how unglamorous it becomes ... who wants to go to bloody Wigan, away, when it's pouring rain? But you never hang up your boots unless you have to, that's something they always tell you when you're 16.' When he came to Hong Kong in 1993, he played for a team called Michelotti, which was sponsored by an Italian watchmaker?, an appropriate metaphor if ever there was one. He didn't get paid for the final three months. He lived in a small, unlovely flat with Michel and their two sons, Michael, now 14 and Jack, 11. He worked for TVB (he was part of its last World Cup commentary team) and then he got his job with the Hong Kong Football Club. 'That was three years ago, the longest I've ever stayed with a club.' He knows he's lucky. He uses football analogies all the time - 'I'm now an international in terms of what I'm doing', 'This is the Manchester United of recreational facilities' - so let's say that if life is a game of two halves, he's made it beyond half-time. Not everyone manages that. 'Most of the footballers from my generation are unemployed. They're not trained for the outside world. They try and get back into coaching but who the hell wants Tony Sealy when they can have Ian Wright?' I asked him if he'd do it all again and he looked at me as if I were a few players short of a squad. 'Of course,' he cried. 'I invested the best part of my life in what I believe is the best game in the world. If you want safety and comfort, don't become a footballer. If you don't want to wake up wondering if you've got a job, don't become a footballer.' And if Michael or Jack wanted to do it? 'I'd say, 'Fill your boots, son.' '