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'It was manic': Rudi Hedman on fireworks, cow tongues and life in Hong Kong

Features

Brought through at Colchester United, a successful spell at Crystal Palace and now a coaching role at the club where it all began: Rudi Hedman’s career in England reads like that of many top-level professionals. But it’s his time abroad that makes him unique – and suddenly introduces memories of Hong Kong races, Malaysian pre-season tours and the infamous night that introduced England to the concept of the ‘dentist’s chair’.

After a period with Dulwich Hamlet and Stevenage Borough, Hedman sought his next big step – but the opportunity that arrived may have been a bigger step than he was anticipating. A new world of football, recreation and cuisine awaited.

“I just wanted a change for the family, that was all,” says Hedman, remarkably blasé about the decision to uproot and move nearly 6,000 miles away. “I was out of work, and the opportunity came along.

“[Former Palace goalkeeper] Perry Suckling was out there as well, and he’s the one who gave me the phone call. Glyn Hodges came out as well. They were the only Palace connections.

“My daughter was only eight months at the time, so it wasn’t that much of an upheaval in that sense: I didn’t have to get them out of school. That made the decision much easier.

“I went out to Hong Kong just before the handover [of sovereignty to China] in 1997. I ended up joining Tsing Tao.”

Initially, the dramatic culture change was something Hedman struggled to get to grips with.

“To say the least,” he remembers. “For the first six months we were in hotels until we found our own place. Obviously you do get homesick.

“For the first few months when I was out there with the food, I lived off pasta and pot noodles! It was really nice Chinese food, but obviously I was a bit naïve. Some of the restaurants didn’t have pictures, so I would just point and hope.

“Pak choi we knew, some of the dim sum dishes because it was in front of you. But then it was cow tongues and chicken feet…”

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I was a bit naïve... I became far more adventurous.

Rudi Hedman

But before he knew it, Hedman was firmly ensconced in the culture - firmly, and a bit uncomfortably.

His next meal is not for the faint-hearted.

“I became far more adventurous,” he admits. “Some of the things I tried I have no idea. I remember being in a big restaurant after the first time we beat one of the big teams out there.

“The owner treated us to a four-course meal, and I think it was pigs' testicles. I didn’t know what I was eating. I was told afterwards and I wasn’t happy!”

What becomes instantly clear talking to Hedman is his willingness to throw himself into new cultures and new experiences. Taking to the hustle and bustle of life in Hong Kong wasn’t easy, even for someone brought up in London.

“The actual island near Happy Valley where all the matches were is mayhem,” he says. “Too busy. You think London is bad? It’s a quite a few times worse than that.

“We ended up living out in the new territories, and commuting into training every day. That way of life was a lot simpler and a lot less hectic.”

But did it lead to feeling detached from his new home? No chance.

“There were three or four teammates who were Chinese living in that area as well,” he explains. “They became like my second family. Luckily two of them spoke a little bit of English so that made it easier.

“I even managed to learn a little bit of Mandarin and Cantonese.”

We ask if he can remember any of it. “Only the swear words!”

Even in the mid-1990s, the standard was strong. “It was very professional,” Hedman says. “We trained every day, and the matches were usually in the afternoon or the evening because of the humidity and the heat.

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They set off fireworks during the game - it would get rowdy.

Rudi Hedman

“There were eight teams in total, and six played out of either the Hong Kong Stadium or the Mong Kok Stadium. We’d end up playing each other four times, a bit like in the Scottish Premiership.

“The biggest rivalries out there were with Happy Valley and South China – the latter were kind of like the Man City, with all the money and the best players. It was always an intense rivalry when we played South China.

“There were no ultras or anything like that. But loads of flag waving and very loud. They set off fireworks, going on during the game continuously. Initially I had no idea what it was, but I got used to it!

“It was even during training you’d hear fireworks being let off, especially in the build-up to a big game. It would get rowdy.”

In some ways, it was when the league finished that the most fascinating part of Hedman’s season began.

“We would play friendlies against other sides in China, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons I ended up going out there. When they gave me the first season’s schedule and I saw the travelling, it was great.

“The first time we went to China. We landed in Guangzhou, which is like the corridor into China, and then we flew out to Beijing. We stayed somewhere that was like a college of sport: loads of dormitories and absolutely massive.

“We got shown around, and there were loads of disciplines like gymnastics, table tennis, athletics. What struck me was how young the kids were: they were about four or five years old. They were up at five o’clock, and training for like 12 hours a day. That was an eye-opener.”

Of all his destinations, one stands out above the rest: “I’d have to say Malaysia. We were just outside Kuala Lumpur. That’s where we’d go for pre-season.

“There’s fantastic food, the people, the language. In terms of the travelling and the camaraderie, it was just like any team: you get a bunch of guys together and you’re going to be having all the banter around.”

But for all his glamorous experiences exploring east Asia, some of the biggest adventures were when home came to him. You can take the man out of England, but you can’t take England out of the man.

“It was manic in those days,” he remembers. “Absolutely manic. It felt a bit detached when we came back.

“The Hong Kong Stadium used to host the World Cup rugby sevens. The Happy Valley racing was on a Wednesday and a Friday. Gambling is illegal out there except for the horseracing. It had its moments.

“And then there was the night when the England players came out before Euro 1996 [the dentist's chair affair]. I’m not putting that experience on tape – but what an experience!”

Hedman’s career goes to show the power of football beyond European achievement and financial gain. It shows how the game can be a window to the world, a chance to explore different societies, to meet new people and experience fascinating cultures.

To grasp that opportunity requires a courage to tear up familiar surroundings and plunge oneself into the unknown. It’s a leap Hedman was happy to make, and reflecting back on his extraordinary experiences all these years later, boy was it worth it.