INTERVIEW: Chan Yuen-ting
With a top-flight league title and AFC Champions League experience to her name, 2016 AFC Women’s Coach of the Year Chan Yuen-ting has enjoyed a remarkable career to date. Still only 29, the record-breaking coach offers her view on the women’s game and reveals her plans for the future.
When Chan Yuen-ting became the first women to lead a men’s team to a league title in April 2016, the Hong Kong native attracted global headlines in a year that culminated in her being named the AFC Women’s Coach of the Year.
The timing was perfect because, not only had Chan guided Hong Kong Premier League side Eastern SC to their first top flight championship since the mid-90s, the then 28-year-old had done so at a time when Hong Kong’s coefficient ranking guaranteed a berth in the AFC Champions League for the first time. The fledgling coach would now be handed the chance to test her wits against some of the best coaches in Asia.
Eastern were drawn in the 2017 group stage alongside a pair of two-time continental champions in China’s Guangzhou Evergrande and Korea Republic’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings, as well as Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale, who would go on to reach the quarter-finals and win the 2017 J.League title.
As fate would have it, Eastern’s competition debut saw them take the short journey into mainland China to face 2013 and 2015 winners Guangzhou at Tianhe Stadium, meaning Chan would walk her team out side-by-side with FIFA World Cupwinning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose charges included Brazilian international and now Barcelona midfielder Paulinho.
“I spoke with Scolari a few times in Guangzhou and in Hong Kong, before and after the press conferences,” recalled Chan.
“I was impressed because he had done a lot of research on Eastern and knew everything, which surprised me as we’re just a small club. But it taught me that attention to detail makes perfect.”
Chan’s game plan was significantly hindered by two early red cards as the minnows’ task was made all the more difficult and the clash eventually ended 7-0 to the hosts.
But Eastern returned to Hong Kong to claim a highly commendable 1-1 draw with Kawasaki in the second round of fixtures, before four more defeats followed as the Hong Kong debutants exited at the first hurdle.
“The ACL gave me a very significant experience in my coaching life as it’s a much higher level,” admitted Chan.
“To see players like Paulinho, who you normally just see on TV, standing in front of you is quite strange. He can control games. He gave his best in China and changed some perceptions about the league.
“Over the six games, even though we lost, I could see all the players gave it everything. We prepared a lot – with different tactics and formations – but the level was so different.”
On the back of the AFC Champions League exit, Eastern lost their grip on the Hong Kong Premier League title after being beaten in the final match of the season by rivals Kitchee.
The defeat was a bitter pill to swallow for Chan, who had almost followed up her historic maiden league success by going a whole season unbeaten, only to lose the last match and, with it, concede the title.
It had been a whirlwind 18 months since being appointed as head coach of Eastern and Chan decided the time was now right to step down from her role, while remaining part of the coaching staff at the club.
“I wanted to sit back and focus on learning,” the now 29-year-old said. “After the ACL I could really see my weaknesses, so I thought by taking a step back I could see things from a different angle and learn from the other coaches.
“The attention [from being a women coach] was sometimes tiring, but I always tried to just focus on myself and do the best for my team. It’s not important what people on the outside say, it’s just important that you do your job, improve your team and improve your players.”
Chan has continued to play a day-to-day role with Eastern when in her home city, but has also travelled as she continues to train for her Pro Licence. She recently spent time at Lilleshall Hall – one of England’s renowned National Sports Centres.
As an established coach on the continent, Chan was invited to work as an analyst at the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship in Chonburi, Thailand, in September, allowing her to see the game from yet another angle.
In particular, the experience offered an opportunity of a greater insight into the women’s game, while also highlighting the style of football played by different nations across Asia.
“It was my first time being an analyst at a competition, and it was really different from being a coach in Hong Kong because you’re focusing on a whole tournament and you see the different cultures of the teams.
“I really like Japan’s style of play. In Chonburi, I could see the balance of their team – in defence and in attack. It’s amazing, whether it’s men’s football, women’s football or youth football, they always keep the same style, short passing with good combination play.
“You can see that physically teams are getting stronger, the transition of play is quicker and the technique is getting much better.
“Even though they are just 15 or 16, they play the country’s style. China always want possession, Japan use combination play, DPR Korea are more direct.”
That tournament was won by DPR Korea, but the East Asians will not be present at the next big competition on the women’s football calendar, the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan in April.
Chan admits she would like to attend the continental tournament but remains unsure if her schedule will allow her the time, while she remains upbeat about the future of women’s football across Asia.
“[At the 2016 AFC Annual Awards ceremony], I spoke with [AFC Technical Director] Andy Roxburgh about the improvements in the women’s game, particularly since Bai Lili became head of the department,” she revealed.
“There have been a lot of projects and instructor courses for women in many countries and you can see that physically teams are getting stronger, the technique is better and the transition of play is quicker.
“I think China can maybe challenge again because they have improved a lot lately. Ten or 20 years ago they were really good, then they dropped quite a lot. But there is now a professional women’s league in China and the level of the game is higher again.
“Southeast Asian teams are also getting stronger too and, in West Asian countries, although football is not as developed, hosting tournaments will see more media focus on them, so the Asian Cup should raise the profile of the game there.”
When it comes to her own future, Chan remains focused on achieving her coaching badges in the immediate future before deciding the next route to take.
Having won a league title and coached in the AFC Champions League before the age of 30, she already boasts a hugely impressive resume.
Young, ambitious and always looking to better herself, there seems little doubt that wherever Chan winds up, she will have plenty to offer any future employees.
“After I finish my Pro Licence I’ll try to look for opportunities in other countries, where I can learn at a higher level and bring my experience back to Hong Kong.”
“I’ve already had offers to coach women’s teams in China, Iran and the UAE, but it wasn’t the best option just now.
“For me, it’s not important if I work in men or women’s football, but I’d like to work in Japan or, if I go outside Asia, maybe in England or Spain.”