It has been a long time coming for Toby Down but last month he finally made his debut in the top flight of Hong Kong football. With twenty minutes to play, he was introduced and helped his side Tai Po draw 4-4 with Yuen Long. It had been four long years since his last involvement in Hong Kong football, and he has earned a degree in that time, but he is now back in the country he calls home and ready to make an impact.
“I was born in England,” says Down, a 24-year-old midfielder. “At the time my dad was working for the airline Cathay Pacific at Heathrow as an engineer and after some work trips to Hong Kong, a job opportunity came up here that he decided to take and our family moved to Hong Kong just a few weeks before the handover from the British to China in 1997.”
That meant the Ascot-born midfielder was just three when he arrived in Asia. Fast forward 21 years and he is still there and finally getting his chance on the professional stage. However, he does not have the typical academy upbringing that many a professional footballer has.
“When we first got here, football in Hong Kong was scarce and expensive so my dad actually set up a team with a few other parents that were playing for the Kowloon Cricket Club,” he says.
“At the time there was only seven of us of different ages but now there are 300+ boys and 50+ girls.
“When I started playing it was just coached by volunteer parents, usually my dad, however now there are professional coaches involved after there was a collaboration with the biggest football school here, Asia Pacific Soccer Schools.”
Despite the help of his father significantly improving the amount of opportunities for young footballers in Hong Kong, there was still one problem he couldn’t fix.
“Facilities here are definitely a issue, as you might imagine expect with such a densely populated city. I grew up playing on a lot of concrete pitches for fun and even the occasional training session.
“But mostly it was artificial turf pitches that we trained on because any grass pitches here were so over used that they were often just sand.”
He also played rugby and competed in athletics during his younger days but eventually, with the help of his dad’s hard work and coaching from some former professionals who had settled in Hong Kong, Down progressed into the setup of a professional team for the first time when he joined top flight side Citizen AA.
The opportunity of full time football is what most young players dream of but for the young midfielder, it was not an experience he remembers fondly.
“My first experience in the professional scene wasn’t a positive one, to say the least. I met some brilliant players and some guys that still play here but the chances just never really came.
“I was scoring goals for the reserves and performing well, I thought. The coach at the time had played at the highest level in Brazil and often praised me and would push for me to get game time but the manager had his favourites and unfortunately, I was only 18 at the time, and young players find it difficult to get into the teams here.”
After his first taste of the professional life turned sour, Down decided to switch his attention back to education and return to the plan he had in mind before joining Citizen, moving to America to play and study.
“I had actually looked into the States before signing for Citizen after my first gap year. I contacted a lot of coaches and sent videos but understandably there weren’t many responses.
“If there was a major positive to come out of my time with Citizen it was that I was explaining what had happened in my search for American universities to a friend and he put me in touch with another player, Michael Luk, who just happened to have setup an athlete agency for American universities.
“We clicked and I became one of his two first players under Affinity Education. They sent out our videos and became a trusted reference for universities and I started receiving scholarship offers.”
It was the chance the Ascot-born midfielder had been waiting for and when he weighed up his options, it seemed like a no-brainer to make the move across the Pacific.
“I wanted to go because while I wanted to play to the highest level I could, I felt it was more important to have a safety net and a plan for after my career. The American college system provides that; I was able to play high level football and get a university degree at the same time. They also paid for a massive chunk of it which kept my family and I happy.
“It would have been extremely hard for me to get that opportunity in the UK.”
The offer Down had accepted was to study Marketing at Concordia University Nebraska. The university’s athletics team are known as the Bulldogs and although they did not compete in the NCAA divisions, the most well known college sports leagues, his university did compete in the very competitive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) leagues.
“The standard was good,” he says. “It was very physical and very fast paced. The technical ability in most cases came from the foreign players from South America and Europe but most teams consisted of over half the starting line up being foreign.
“The collegiate substitution rule, which is basically rolling subs, helped the pace of the game and kept it interesting. Often it was 100 miles an hour for the full 90 minutes.”
Down spent four years in Nebraska, scoring 16 goals, including two hat-tricks, and provided many more assists as he often led his college standings. His performances and the degree he earned ensured his decision to move so far from home was vindicated. He was now set on a return to his home town and a return to professional football, having learned so much from his time away.
The team with which the midfielder would resume his career in Hong Kong with was Tai Po FC, the side which finished as runners-up in the Hong Kong Premier League last season. Down was not easing himself back into full-time action, he was going in straight at the top.
“I’m extremely happy to be with my new team,” he says. “The coach has been building this team for a long time now and I was actually a part of a youth team he used to coach along with a handful of the lads that play in Tai Po. That made it a team I knew I could fit into and wanted to be a part of.”
The 24-year-old’s move to Tai Po happened this summer but having finished playing football at the end of last year in the States, there was understandably a transition phase for the Nebraska graduate.
“I didn’t come into the season as fit as I would have liked to thanks to the odd seasons in America and having not trained at a high level since December.
“But the first few months will be for me to learn from the experienced players so I can really impact the team in the coming months.”
As his side finished second last season, they have qualified for the AFC Cup, Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League but for now, that will have to wait as Down and his teammates look to go one better this season in the league. They have started the new campaign by going unbeaten through the first three games of the season. The club also narrowly lost the Community Cup, similar to the Charity Shield, against last season’s champions Kitchee in a match which the English-born midfielder started against a very familiar name, former Liverpool midfielder Mohamed Sissoko. The match-up also brought up the disparity between some of the players in the league.
“Although it is a full time professional league here, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, and outside of the foreign players and superstars like Sissoko, most other players are doing something on the side.
“For instance, I am coaching with Asia Pacific Soccer Schools who I have been affiliated with for a long time. Though I’m part time with them, it is a bit of extra money to help keep stable in this expensive town.”
Last season, Kitchee boasted Uruguayan legend Diego Forlan and with Sissoko on board this season, they will be the team to beat again.
Down has made three appearances so far this season, playing in a deeper role than he did in the US, and whilst he remains focused on nailing down a spot in the Tai Po lineup, talk turns to another possibility that a return to his adopted homeland has brought up and his fate may lie in the hands of another Englishman.
“If the opportunity to play for Hong Kong presented itself, I would definitely love to represent them,” he says. “I think it’s pretty fair to say I will never represent England and HK has been my home for over twenty years. I love it here, I love the country, I’m English but Hong Kong is home.
“I’m currently in the process of getting a HK passport. If it is accepted, then I just have to play my game, the rest is out of my hands in terms of being selected.
“Though I’m hoping with Englishman Gary White taking the reigns of the national team, he might look in my direction in the future!”
Gary White, a coach from Southampton, took over the national side last month having earned rave reviews coaching the national sides of the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Guam and Chinese Taipei in the past in a coaching career which began in the late 1990s. He will be the man Down needs to impress if he is to become an international.
Attention now turns to his future at club level and the midfielder insists although he remains focused on the short-term, he does have a long-term goal in mind.
“I have only been a professional for a couple months and I need to focus on working hard and establishing myself in the team and then in the league.
“If I can prove myself here, I would love the opportunity to go play in China for a couple of years at least. As a Hong Kong local player, I qualify to be a local player there too and more recently they have been looking to foreign players who receive local status in HK to go across the boarder and play in the Super League and First Division.
“But first, I’m focused on Hong Kong.”