China and the surrounding outer reaches have infiltrated world football’s top leagues with a number of different talents. In a perhaps more English and insular Premier league approach, the impact can only really be adjudged by a handful of players. Do you remember Sun Jihai – a stalwart of pre-money Manchester City? Arsenal‘s Li Ke? Perhaps you can recall Li Weifeng and Li Tie of Everton?
As flash in the pan players like Manchester United‘s Dong Fangzhuo or Charlton‘s Zheng Zhi reflect, sometimes the representation from that part of the world has been more obscure than impressive. This is slightly different from the topic of this article, who is debatably a mixture of both descriptions. This player was the forefather, the pioneer footballer to move away from Asia. This is the story of Cheung Chi Doy, the first Asian (and Hong Kong) footballer to play in Europe.
(Extremely) Early career beginnings in native Hong Kong
It’s safe to say Cheung Chi Doy took to football early. The middle of three footballing brothers, Cheung was surrounded by the sport. He carried a certain obsession that served him well alongside great skill and ability up front. This was especially noticeable at school level, where at 13 he captained his Roman Catholic School to a Hong Kong Schools Football League Championship victory. Such was his development, that he started his career in his country’s second division at the mere age of 14. He spent two formative years with a club called Sing Tao, before moving to Tung Wah in 1959.
At that time, the national setup came calling and he was expected to become a star for the Chinese Nationalist team. He actually played in Olympic qualifying versus South Korea and was widely speculated to appear in the team that would travel to Rome’s 1960 Olympics. However, although the trip to Italy would’ve no doubt been exciting, the young forward had his ambitions set on a different part of the continent.
Inspired by the boys from Bloomfield Road
Staring down a chance to represent his country was brave, especially in the face of an era of British occupation in Hong Kong. However, Cheung had his reasoning. He was grasped by an early footballing inspiration and given what he had witnessed, you can understand why.
You see, back in 1958, one Blackpool FC were on a tour of the Pacific. Bolstered by the likes of Jimmy Armfield and the great Stanley Matthews, the Tangerines embarked on a 13,000 mile trip to Australia for exhibition matches. The men in orange likely left all they played against with red faces, as they won 12 out of 12 games against their Aussie counterparts with relative ease.
On a jaunt home, they passed through Cheung’s Hong Kong and here they kept the players busy with further games. First, there was a 3-1 win against an All-Hong Kong XI before a 10-1 thumping of a Combined Chinese team. At 17, Cheung Chi Doy was awestruck by the team that had sauntered through Australia and then demolished two teams with a collective aggregate of 13-2 in Hong Kong. Having witnessed their fleeting greatness, he was hit with aspirational whispers from beyond his shores. He had to leave Hong Kong.
Luckily for Cheung, his form at Tung Wah was remarkable. Throw it forward from ’58 to 1960 and the 5’9 hitman was looking at a prolific record. In one season, the 17-year-old impressed with 13 goals in 24 games. This was enough to convince the youngster to act on his prior English interest. Confidence was high. It was time to gamble. It was time to take a journey of a lifetime.
Following his idols back to England and realising a BIG dream
Now, with seemingly enough goals in the figurative bank, Cheung undertook the long journey to the other side of the world. He was young. He was alone. Yet, he was also powered by the images of Blackpool players doing things he’d never seen before. They were almost like a travelling circus. The Seasiders effectively changed a young man’s life. As Blackpool historian Gerry Wolstenholme documented, Cheung later said:
“My heart was set on becoming a professional in England. I saw Blackpool play in Hong Kong and they were wonderful. Stanley Matthews was what we called ‘The Number One footballer’.”
Perhaps riskily brazen, Cheung Chi Doy arrived at Bloomfield Road and laid it all on the line. Luckily, his long journey had not been for nothing, as Blackpool accepted his request of a trial. This saw him take a shirt in the reserves and like a bolt from the blue, Blackpool were to be impressed. Although a complete outsider, Cheung was a star player in games against both Liverpool and Everton reserves. This practically forced Blackpool’s hand. They just couldn’t turn down such energy, and what seemed to be a clear natural aptitude for the game. So, in October of 1960, the amateur from Hong Kong went pro and realised his dream with a contract.
Amazingly, just a few months down the line in January 1961, Cheung’s rise would go meteoric as he found himself in manager Ron Stuart’s starting XI. Subsequently, he became the first ethnic Chinese player to appear in the top flight of English football. Despite the prestige of his appearance, Cheung’s debut succumbed to English weather. The game against Wolves lasted just nine minutes before being called off due to heavy fog. Instead, he would snatch his hotly anticipated debut against Bolton Wanderers the week after.
Top form in the reserves – what could’ve been
After this brief taste of first team football, Cheung returned to the reserves. Undeterred, he kept up some great form. At the start of the 1961/62 season, he grabbed a hattrick in the first game against Burnley. Then, he registered nine goals in 17 Central League matches and again put his name on the starting XI sheet. On the 25th of November 1961, the Hongkonger was deployed at inside right against Sheffield Wednesday and bagged his first senior goal. Superb. His hard work now had something tangible, a first team goal – almost a figurative face to a name.
Unfortunately though, despite the history he had made this goal wasn’t enough for consistent opportunities and he returned to the reserves before the end of the year saw him cancel his Blackpool contract through mutual consent. Instead of trying again in England, the young man returned home. It makes you wonder, with his reserve form and clear skill in front of goal – why didn’t he try again? To me, it’s a real shame. Perhaps, his English dream needed reviving. Or, ultimately it needed tweaking. Canada anyone?
Prolificacy against all Hong Kong had to offer before another chance abroad
Now, the years between 1962 and 1968 were eventful for Cheung Chi Doy. He returned home to Hong Kong. Not only did he have the prowess of being his continent’s first European first division player, but he was also his country’s too. ’62 also saw him start a nine year career representing the Republic of China national team (now Chinese Taipei). More importantly, Cheung managed to bag 89 goals in a blinding 150 games. It was a mark of his character. He could’ve gone home, tail between his legs. But instead, he carved out an impressive career on home soil.
His impressive and eye catching displays saw him get what could be deemed as a second chance outside of his country. In 1968, far from Hong Kong, one Bobby Robson took his first managerial job after leaving Fulham. The destination? The newly formed Vancouver Royals. Before Robson began, he was set on one man. Regardless of cooking almost everyone he played against in Hong Kong, Cheung Chi Doy was one of the first players Bobby Robson ever signed as a manager – purely because Robson remembered the striker from his Blackpool days.
However, frustratingly, for a young Robson and now well-travelled Doy – the former’s coaching position wasn’t safe. The Royals merged with another team and Cheung found his new gaffer was rather random. Random, yet legendary – it was Ferenc Puskás. That said, considering the merger, Cheung wasn’t one of Puskás‘ players and he saw less and less action. He moved to St Louis Stars before then returning home, again maybe thinking ‘what if?’
Ending his career as a legend in Hong Kong’s first division
Again, despite missing out on his foreign opportunities, Cheung went back to storm Hong Kong’s first division. You could just imagine the frustration translating excellently – goals becoming a force of therapy. Cheung battered in 89 goals in 225 appearances over spells with Jardine, Fire Services and Happy Valley, respectively. Then, in 1978 he called time on his career. Ultimately, he ended a domestic legend.
Now, if you’ve read one of my articles before, you know I’m fond of cyclic endings. Well, this one is no anomaly from the trend my friends. Well, in 2016, Cheung returned to Blackpool for a reunion at Bloomfield Road. After 55 years, he was still a welcome face and he reminisced:
“It was a good experience for me to come here from Hong Kong and I learnt a lot about discipline with the hard training. When I went back to Hong Kong I played better than before I came.”
With a ridiculous 180 goals in 394 games, I think he was spot on.