From White Collar to Pro Soccer – Interview with Michael Campion

Interview with Hong Kong International Soccer Player..Michael Campion

michael-campion-4

(Not my Picture)…..

Michael Campion: The Road Less Travelled

Christopher KL Lau

Photos: Michael Campion

As the saying goes, often it is the boldest of moves that yields the greatest of rewards. When Sun Pegasus’s Michael Campion was 26 years old, he decided to seize the moment and trade in his well paid white collar wine industry job to focus on his true calling and life passion; football.

Since there are no certainties in life, this was the proverbial “huge risk” which could either end in failure or be a resounding success. Luckily, it proved to the latter and since dusting down his football boots one more time, he has not looked back and flourished in Hong Kong’s professional league. Campion has built a solid name and reputation for himself as a versatile player who can play both as a central midfielder (Advanced / Holding) and as a centre back.

Since that pivotal life decision, Campion has gone on from strength to strength and has thrived in Hong Kong’s professional first division for Citizen AA and now, Sun Pegasus. His strengths lie in his range of passing, creativity and composure on the ball against equally gifted and speedy players while his work-rate and set piece skills are second to none. The career of the locally born player of both British and Filipino descent reached its zenith when he was selected to play for the Hong Kong national team in the 35th Annual Inter-port cup against Guangdong.

Michael Campion at Sun Pegasus

Michael Campion At Sun Pegasus

Campion’s story is truly one of persistence and determination; to give up a comfortable life to become a footballer in a city where it is difficult to be a well paid professional athlete is no mean feat and full of risk and pitfalls.

His story serves as an inspiration to those plying their trade on the fringes of the professional game and who still dream of making fully fledged professional status. Soccerphile had the privilege of having an exclusive interview with Michael Campion where he discusses his steady and unconventional rise, from playing at university to the Scottish semi-professional leagues to playing for the Hong Kong National team.

When you were a teenager, did you honestly think you would ever become a professional footballer? Was there a plan or did it just happen?

Campion: To be honest, I thought about it all the time. I think most football obsessed teenagers do dream about it, regardless of ability, but I knew that I was better than most kids my age and that I had a decent chance of playing professionally. Everyone who knew me always said that it would happen, sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously, but I was doing well academically and that was the route I chose to go down as a teenager. After heading to university in the UK at age 18 I had pretty much given up on the idea of playing football full-time to be honest. But after getting my degree and working in various ‘real world’ jobs for a few years, I realized that sitting at a desk just wasn’t for me and that I needed to go back to football and give my childhood dream a shot before it was really too late.

You had trials with several clubs like Nottingham Forest and Derby. Was it a brutal process and how much time were you given to “prove” yourself?

Campion: The trials with Notts County, Nottingham Forest and Derby County came about when I was 16 and playing for the HK National Team at U17 level. If memory serves me right I think I spent about 1 week each at Forest and Derby, and about 4 or 5 days at Notts County. The intensity and quality of training was much higher and more professional than I was used to of course, but although I found myself towards the back of the group in the more physical drills, I certainly didn’t feel overwhelmed or out of place at any of the clubs in terms of my skills level.  The process wasn’t brutal per se, it was hugely beneficial and an eye opener for me. But what I did learn from that summer and I continue to see to this day, is that professional football is a really cutthroat business and the reality is that only one or two of those 25 youngsters at each club goes on to have a successful career at a very high level. I didn’t really feel that I was given ample opportunity to prove myself, but I realize now that I needed to be more aggressive and forthright in making an impression on the coaches. You need to have a certain level of cockiness about you to make yourself stand out from the crowd, and as a relatively quiet and shy teenager I just didn’t yet possess the requisite confidence. I learned a lot that summer.

Michael Campion at Sun Pegasus, Hong Kong

Michael Campion

Is playing semi-professional football in Scotland as tough as it sounds?

Campion: Haha! Yes it is and was pretty hard going at times!  There are a lot of tough guys playing in the East of Scotland and Highland Leagues, and when it’s close to freezing, it’s raining, and you’re on a muddy pitch miles from home, sometimes you’d just rather be at home in front of the heater to be honest! All the guys in those leagues work regular jobs during the week, from bankers (what I was doing) to plumbers and everything in between, so most teams would train two evenings a week with matches every weekend.  Although it was tough and you’re only getting a bit of money for the trouble, there are actually quite a lot of talented footballers plying their trade at that level. Players like myself who had been attached to professional youth teams, or older guys who had played professionally for a few years in the lower divisions and now had families or other commitments which prevented them from dedicating their whole lives to football.

In all your years of playing, what was your greatest challenge so far?

Campion: I think my greatest challenge, was having the courage at 26 years of age to leave the conventional world of work and pursue my dream.  Remember that since age 18 I had gone to University, obtained my Masters degree, worked in several jobs (the most recent of which was a fantastic job in the wine industry that was paying well) and during those 8 years I had only been playing amateur or semi professional level football. So, the greatest challenge for me was to completely change the life path I had been going down, and decide to invest all my energy in making a success of my life as a footballer. And I think that’s actually the hardest thing for any aspiring footballer; to muster the courage to put their ego and reputation on the line in what is a such a ruthless sport where the line between success and failure is incredibly fine.  There are thousands of incredibly skillful teenagers every year who don’t make the grade, not because they lack talent, but because they lack the requisite confidence, determination and mental strength (and that’s ignoring the massive chunk of luck you need too). I know my 16 year old self didn’t have that level of self-belief. Maybe it took me a decade to build it. Sorry for rambling!

If you could “transplant” any of your Hong Kong clubs into the English leagues, which level would they “slot” into?

Campion: An impossible question if ever there was one haha, but I know exactly why you’ve asked it! There always used to be massive debates on where Celtic and Rangers would finish in the EPL when I lived in Scotland and there were rumors of them moving down South.  If I’m to look at the top few clubs in HK, and I consider my current club Sun Pegasus to be in the top three or four, then I guess those HK clubs would slot into League Two or The Conference.  However, it’s an extremely tricky question to ask because the style of English football is so different to the kind of football played here in Asia, and even compared to leagues closely in Europe such as France, Holland and Spain.  The pace of English football is frenetic, and even at the top of the pyramid (EPL) the physical characteristics of players are highly prized. The referees are also a lot more lenient when it comes to the kinds of challenges that are acceptable.  In my opinion, the referees in Asia are often too fussy when it comes to fouls and should let the game flow more, whereas the referees in England often don’t protect the skillful players enough. So, in summary it’s a tough call, but there are definitely many players in HK who are a match for League Two players in terms of skill and technique, and a few who are skillful enough to play in the championship even. But, the differences in style and physique would prevent many from actually doing so.

Michael Campion at Sun Pegasus, Hong Kong

Michael Campion in action

You have represented Hong Kong at international level. When you were called up, what emotions did you go through?

Campion: Pride and happiness were the obvious first emotions I think.  I was born and raised in HK despite being of mixed British/Filipino heritage, so this country feels like home and I was immensely proud to finally pull on the national jersey and represent 7 million people. I guess I also felt vindicated – finally vindicated in my decision to quit the world of 9-5 and pursue what makes me happy. The call up was final confirmation that all the hard work had been worthwhile.

Will Hong Kong ever qualify for a major international tournament?

Campion: If we’re talking about the World Cup, then the answer is no for the foreseeable future. But that isn’t to say that the standard of football in Hong Kong and the National Team isn’t improving again, because it is. But as it stands, the weighting of teams/federations that Fifa gives means that Asia only gets two or three slots at the World Cup if I remember correctly? And at the moment, countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, Saudi Arabia etc are streets ahead of us in terms of technical development and financial investment. Perhaps this needs to be changed, or SHOULD be changed, so that Asian countries are given more of a chance to qualify for the World Cup, to reflect the growing power of Asian Football. In the more distant future, then why couldn’t Hong Kong qualify? With more investment and everyone pulling in the same direction then anything is possible.

Is the way Hong Kong society is set up that accounts for the lack of athletes coming through the system?

Campion: Closely related to the question above… If you look at the population size of Hong Kong then it’s no excuse, as countries with far smaller populations have qualified for big tournaments and enjoyed sporting success.  But what we need in HK is for there to be more public and private financial support for the sport, we need to improve the number and quality of grass pitches and training facilities, and by raising standards in this way it will inspire more youngsters to get involved in the game.  At the moment being a professional footballer in Hong Kong is only barely viable and this is a city and culture that puts a lot of emphasis on financial prosperity. If professional football players and other athletes were able to make a good living through sport, then maybe more kids would be encouraged to pursue their dreams rather than go down the academic route.  Let’s face it, no kid dreams of being an accountant or a management consultant. They dream of scoring goals in packed stadiums. But, the vast majority of parents see the lucrative salaries on offer in the city working for these vast corporations and so push their kids away from the idea of becoming an athlete.  If the government really put their money where their mouth is and invested in developing footballers and athletes, I honestly believe we could see huge changes in terms of regional success. But unfortunately, land is at such a premium in HK, that big housing projects and commercial property projects get priority over new sports facilities.

Are good players born or is it years of hard work and graft to make it to the top? What is the level of professionalism you witness in the Hong Kong league?

Campion: I am a firm believer in the idea that excellence is something that you develop over several years of focused practice and play. Talent is trainable, if you will. You can be born blessed with genes for above average height, strength, or speed and that totally helps you for athletic pursuits like the 100m dash or high jump for example.  But for sports like football or tennis where you need such a wide range of fine motor skills, those are developed through graft and dedication. Of course, when you love kicking a ball around like I did as a kid, the blessing is that it never really feels like hard work.  In terms of the level of professionalism I witness in HK, it’s certainly better than what I witnessed as a youth player watching the senior pros.  Back then, it was pretty common to see all the first team players having a smoke at the side of the pitch in plain sight, either before or after training.  Whilst of course some players still enjoy a cigarette or a few beers at the weekend now, I think it is a lot more controlled.  I think there is more of a spotlight on player behavior off the pitch now and coupled with the general increase in sports science awareness/information players do look after their bodies pretty well here.  Of course, I still think it can be improved, and it must be improved, if we are to compete with the best in Asia.  As I said though, football is such a cutthroat sport that if standards keep going up, even good players who have been around for years will simply get cut from teams and left behind if they can’t adapt to the more monastic way of life now required to be a professional athlete.

Michael Campion at Sun Pegasus, Hong Kong

Michael Campion

In a recent Hong Kong international match against the Philippines, there was some crowd disturbances with an undertone of bigotry and prejudice. As you are also of Filipino descent and grew up in Hong Kong, how did this impact you?

Campion: It’s difficult to talk about to be honest as I don’t like to wade into politics too much.  And even though I was at the game itself, I can’t know everything that was said on both sides. Given that I don’t speak Cantonese fluently I genuinely didn’t understand much of the abuse I heard anyway. I also saw many local fans behaving impeccably and causing no trouble at all.  I guess there are a few bad people wherever you go. Regardless of nationality or affiliation, I don’t think it is ever acceptable to try and physically harm/injure players though who are simply doing their job and giving their all on the pitch. No violence of this kind can be condoned as it would never be acceptable behavior on the street, so why would it be different in a football ground? As a player you expect some level of verbal abuse from opposing fans, but when it borders on racist or bigoted comments, or you start throwing solid objects at them to hurt them (as happened after the final whistle) then it becomes unacceptable. Football is a passionate and emotional game, but we all need to remember from time to time that it is just a game, and we should do our best not to mix football up with politics. It could have been managed much much better if there was more of a police presence at the game in my opinion, just to dissuade any troublemakers.  Given my background I just found the whole situation horribly awkward and uncomfortable.

When the “floodlights fade” (retirement) and you need to hang up your boots, do you still hope to be involved in the game?

Campion: I definitely harbor hopes of becoming a successful coach once I hang up my boots. But becoming a coach at a top club is almost as tough as it is to become a player. Not only do you need the skills, personality  and qualifications, but you also need the right connections, the right opportunities and I’ve said it before…luck! If not, I’ll probably return to working in the wine industry, but you can never predict your future really.

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