Two legendary former Liverpool forwards are pacing round an astroturf pitch, laughing as they lead a gaggle of budding footballers through some shooting drills. But this isn’t the academy at Anfield, where David Johnson won three European Cups in the swaggering seventies and eighties, nor even Newcastle United, where Peter Beardsley was a hero both before and after his stint with the Reds. This is Hong Kong.
The venue is Hong Kong Football Club, the occasion the 2016 Soccer Sevens, and Beardsley and Johnson are in town with famous youth team Wallsend Boys’ Club. Wallsend are a local institution in Tyneside, north-east England, having produced well over sixty professional footballers, including Beardsley himself as well as Alan Shearer and former Manchester United captain Steve Bruce. This year, for the third time, the club will be fielding a team in the Masters section of the Sevens.
But there’s more to their trip than simply the playing side. Wallsend are launching a coaching collaboration with HKFC to bring their belief in footballing opportunity for all to youngsters in Hong Kong. Neil Jensen, a Tyneside native and General Committee member at HKFC, tells the story; it starts in 2013 with Wallsend rather down on their luck. High winds had damaged the club’s premises in the suburbs of Newcastle, leaving them without a permanent home; the club needed to raise money for a replacement, and a decision was made to spread the brand globally to raise awareness. With the ranks at HKFC including not only Neil but also Operations Director Tony Sealy, a former pro who started out as a youngster at Wallsend, there was natural interest in seeing what HKFC could do to help. So in 2013 and each year since, Wallsend have been invited to field a Masters team. Alumni like Beardsley, former Newcastle and Celtic winger Alan Thompson, and Sunderland, Leeds and Newcastle striker Michael Bridges have taken the field.
Encouraged by the warm reception they’ve received, Wallsend have turned their attention to what they can give back to Hong Kong. There’s a real sense of mission here. Everyone I speak to on this warm Thursday in Happy Valley is energized by the idea that this spirited club – an entirely voluntary organization that has helped countless boys from ordinary backgrounds become well-rounded young men as well as skillful footballers – has something to add to the lives of kids in Hong Kong.
Neil tells me how HKFC are founding a charity to take football to working-class children in the tougher districts of Hong Kong. They’ll be partnering with junior soccer schools and working with Wallsend to take on board the youth club’s spirit and beliefs, as well as its methods. Football, says Neil, is and should remain a great leveller, a competitive and meritocratic sport open to all. “Money shouldn’t determine whether people play football”, he says, but in Hong Kong, where access to space is so expensive, it often does so. HKFC and Wallsend would like to change that.
I pick up the story with Wallsend chairman Steve Dale, who’s watching youngsters line up to take shots with encouragement from Beardsley. Steve tells me that Wallsend is as much about helping kids develop as people as it is about producing great footballers. Only a minority of the boys who go through the club will go on to play at professional level, but all will gain something from the experience and take that into adult life. It’s a warm-hearted philosophy, yet there is steel to Wallsend too; on the field, they play fairly but they play to win, and standards are high. The club has founded a men’s side that is aiming to reach the highest level of the amateur game in England, and have adopted a women’s team too. Next year, for the first time, they aim to be coaching girls as well as boys.
Back on the playing side, Wallsend this year are fielding a Masters side including former A-League star (and one time South China forward) Daniel McBreen. Bardsley, Sealy and elite English amateur Darren Timmons, among others, make up the squad. At the time of writing, things had gone well for them on the first day, winning both their games in pool B. They’ve yet to face a Citi All Stars side who look perhaps their toughest rivals, featuring former Liverpool stars Patrik Berger and Vladimir Smicer. That’s a showdown that excites former Liverpool and Newcastle midfielder Terry McDermott, who’s here as an ambassador for Wallsend.
Steve Dale is keeping his cards close to his chest when it comes to revealing the side’s tactics. They do have a game plan, he says, but they haven’t had a great deal of time to practice it, with the squad travelling from far and wide and many holding demanding full-time jobs in the game (Beardsley for instance is a coach at Newcastle United, also in town for the Sevens). Asked what their secret weapon might be, Steve smiles and says “well, we’re hoping real serious talent will see us through!”. It’s something of which Wallsend has produced plenty over the years.