Coaching a professional men's team is not a role typically associated with either a female manager, nor an unproven talent. Yet Chan Yuen Ting has defied convention with the 27-year-old female coach, recently guiding Eastern to the Hong Kong Premier League title.
Chan is certainly not the first woman to coach a men's team. Perhaps most notable is Corinne Diacre, who has been managing French Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot since 2014. But by taking Eastern to their fifth domestic title, Chan's name will forever be etched into football's annals as, reportedly, the first female coach to lead a men's team to a top-flight championship.
"I am not sure if this is a world record as I have yet to check it out," Chan told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "I am just feeling proud. But I am not proud of myself, I am proud of my team. They put in their best performances and they have proven their professionalism and work ethic."
"I didn't expect to become the head coach so soon," continued Chan, who worked as the assistant to former head coach Yeung Ching-kwong before replacing him last December. "And I took over in the middle of the past season. But both the club and team gave me big help. It was their support that carried us through."
*Fast learner *
In fact, Chan decided to pursue a footballing career in college after watching David Beckham play. “He appears so handsome on the pitch and he plays so well,” Chan said. “I couldn’t help but being obsessed with the game.”
With hopes of being a professional player already unrealistic, Chan began coaching in 2010 when she joined Pegasus FC's managerial staff headed by Chan Hiu Ming. Two years later, she moved to Southern District FC to continue her work as an assistant coach, before being invited to join Eastern by coach Yeung. Although a fresh name in Hong Kong's football circles, Chan quickly proved herself to be a fast learner.
"Both coach Chan and my predecessor coach Yeung taught me much about coaching," said Chan. "I have also learned a lot from the players, and I am keen to keep learning. I will ask either a colleague or a player to explain whenever I have a question. The past road was bumpy and there were times when I was forced to think about change, but I didn’t give up. There is no better job than football as I work in my interest."
As a female coach, the biggest difficulty was that I didn't know what the players were thinking due to the gender difference.
Chan's progress was such that she was handed the reins of Eastern in unexpected fashion after Yeung left. By doing so, she became arguably the first woman to coach a men's top-division club in Asia.
"It was not easy,” Chan said. “The opportunity came too soon. I had expected to spend three to five more years as an apprentice, but all of a sudden I became the head coach of the number one club in Hong Kong. I felt tense. The pressure was such that I couldn't sleep and eat well early on. I was afraid to let the people around me down.
"As a female coach, the biggest difficulty was that I didn't know what the players were thinking due to the gender difference," she added. "My approach was to observe and communicate. I kept open to my assistants and the players. I believed them and tried to create a healthy relationship (within the team). I didn't do anything else to win their trust other than work hard. (I thought) if I did my job well, they would trust me. They would think what I did was for the good of the team."
Chan's efforts immediately paid dividends and she got her tenure off to a perfect start as Eastern overcame arch-rivals South China on penalties in the semi-finals of the 2015/16 Hong Kong Senior Challenge Shield. In what was a hard-fought win, Chan's charges had to twice come from behind to draw level as the two sides were locked at 2-2 after extra time, and Eastern eventually prevailed in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.
"We played a great game and particularly, we showed that we are strong as a unit," she recalled her first match in charge. "After the match, we were praised for our performances by fans and media alike. The victory provided me with confidence of continuing with my job."
Indeed, it was a memorable triumph that would stand her, and the team, in good stead. A month later, Eastern went on to beat Kwoon Chung Southern 2-0 in the final as Chan clinched her first silverware in charge of the team. Even more impressive was their form during the league campaign as Eastern claimed the league title with a game to spare with a 2-1 victory against South China.
An admirer of Jose Mourinho, Chan is quick to switch her sights on breaking new ground having guided Eastern to double success. "We may represent Hong Kong in next year's AFC Champions Leagues so we will have a chance of rubbing shoulders with Asia's top clubs, where I hope we can maintain our good form.”