Eastern 2 Rangers 1 (25th September 2016)
After attending two Hong Kong games that felt like they’d been specially organised for Hong Kong’s claustrophobia sufferers, such was the paucity of the crowds, I was looking forward to my third game having something that resembled a crowd.
In theory, playing out of a ground in Mong Kok, supposedly the most densely populated district on the planet, fans shouldn’t be a problem. Then again, Hong Kong itself is one of the most densely populated regions going, and crowds struggle to average much over 1000, even with a population of over seven million.
Mong Kok is certainly a lively place, with several markets. There’s the famous touristy Temple St night market to the south, a flower market for those wishing to buy flowers, a bird market for those wanting birds and bird accessories, an electronics market for electrical goods, a goldfish market for people wanting a goldfish. There’s also a ladies market, but sadly that just sold clothes.
The goldfish market actually sold a variety of fish, as well as a range of other pets. It also had quite a few restaurants, which meant I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of the pets that didn’t sell.
Two of the markets, the flower market and the bird market, are directly next to the Mong Kok Stadium, with perhaps the most interesting being the bird market – a place not just for shopping, but also a place where men would sometimes brings there birds out for a “walk” on a Sunday afternoon.
On my previous visit to the Mong Kok Stadium, nine years ago, I’d noticed that the shops along Flower Market Road all sold flowers, except for one that for some reason sold motorbike crash helmets. That shop had gone, but now the exception to the rule, possibly in the very same shop unit, was a shop selling Halloween goods, a whole five weeks early.
I said I’d been to the Mong Kok Stadium before. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have gone back. The ground was somewhat functional to say the least, but I’d noticed it had been completely rebuilt since then, and now looked quite smart.
Another advantage, with this being an afternoon kick-off, rather than an evening one, was the chance to see the impressive backdrop of hills to the north. No rolling dales here – in Hong Kong hills rise up like small mountain ridges, defying almost any effort to build on them.
Having just missed accidentally enrolling in the Eastern FC supporters club by standing in the wrong queue, I made my way in, paying a curiously cheap HK$30 (£3) to get in, got another cheap beer, but was again let down by the food options, having to opt for a large packet of tomato flavour crisps to tide me over.
Walking round to find a vantage point for the first half, I could help but notice two things. Firstly, the pitch was composed of a kind of wide grass that only seems to grow in this part of the world. Secondly, the women who go to football here dress…well, all I’ll say is that the usual kind of lads who complain about women at football probably wouldn’t do so here.
The crowd at this game was touching 1300, and while the day would hardly rival Galatasaray for atmosphere, it did at least not have the pre-season friendly feel of the previous two games. It was a good open game too, although it could have done with a touch more finesse in the box. At times, the strikers weighed up shots like the ball was made of plutonium, and wanted to spend as little time near with the ball as possible.
The first half ended 1-1, with both goals coming from the spot. Rangers took the lead after 35 minutes, and Eastern levelled the score in 1st half stoppage time, which was the least they deserved after a good first half.
Nighttime descends almost like a flick of a switch in these parts, with the equalising goal being scored in daylight, and the 2nd half, just 15 minutes later, kicking off in darkness. My plan had been to sit in the stand on the far side, towards the goal Eastern were attacking, before moving round to the end for the last 15 minutes or so. It was only as I was considering moving that I noticed that this otherwise smart little ground had absolutely no way of getting behind the goal from the stand I was in, barring a trek round the other three sides. I opted for the other end instead. Maybe I’d see a Rangers goal on one of their ever-rarer breakaways instead.
Instead Eastern won it with 5 minutes to go. Down to 10 men, something I’d somehow completely missed, they made a mockery of the previous poor shooting by curling a perfect 20 yarder across the keeper into the far top corner. The crowd went, well…not ecstatic, but certainly very pleased, except for the glum away following on the far side.
Could Rangers snatch a draw? No, and didn’t really look like doing so, allowing the knot of polite (unless they were swearing in Cantonese – I’d never know) Eastern Ultras to wave their flags and hail the victory.
“We Bleed Blue” said an Eastern supporter banner in the stadium, and with the flower market still doing a trade as the fans filed past into the street as they left, they could even buy some blue flowers to celebrate the day if they fancied, or found a nice blue parrot round the corner. Blue options at the Halloween shop, I’d guess, were rather more limited.