Before reinventing himself as a betting expert for Sky Bet, Dale Tempest was a lower league footballer with a twist. At 22 he left Huddersfield to play for Lokeren in Belgium and after a brief spell at Colchester he walked away from English football for good to pursue a new life in Hong Kong... and ended up playing in World Cup qualifiers for them! Adam Bate found out more...
How did the move to Belgium come about?
I was at Huddersfield. We'd had a decent enough season and finished mid-table or near enough. Mark Lillis, who was my strike partner, went off to Manchester City for £100,000. The two years that I'd been there I'd scored 17 goals in the first season and 16 in the second. They offered me a new contract and it was only £10 extra for a further two years.
Tell me about it! So I decided that I'd go as a free and see if I could pick up another club. An agent got in touch with me and I ended up in Belgium with Sporting Lokeren.
It was a big move for a 22-year-old though?
Yeah, I think the experience at Huddersfield had just disillusioned me. I really thought that I was going to get a decent contract for the first time in my life having come through the system. And obviously instead I was offered an absolutely ridiculous contract. I mentally became a mercenary overnight.
What were your first impressions?
It was fairly different. Actually, I have to say that my time in Belgium was the only time I felt I improved as a player. We played once a week and everything was about technique. When you signed they gave you your own ball which you had to put your name on and bring to training every day. That was quite unusual.
But the dressing room with the players, they were like any other players. We had a good combination of a few foreign players and some younger lads. We were actually favourites to go down and we were quite a small club but we managed to qualify for the UEFA Cup that year so it was a massive season for us.
Our coach was a guy called Aime Anthuenis. He went on to manage Anderlecht a year later and then be the coach of the Belgium national team. And it was a bit bizarre. I used to play up front at home and then away I'd play centre-half. It was very technical and tactical games that we'd play there.
To give you an example, the first three games I played, we played away in the League Cup and won 3-1 and I scored; then we drew the first home game against Racing Jet and I scored; and then we went to Antwerp on the Tuesday night and we won 1-0 and I scored. So we'd played three games and I'd scored in all three.
Then we went to Mechelen, who won a UEFA Cup around that time and were a really top side, and it was live on TV on the Saturday. I was getting myself psyched up for it and he dropped me. I remember the coach coming in and telling us that we don't play with any forwards today. And we went there for a 0-0 draw and got it. Everyone was high-fiving and thought it was fantastic. It left me totally bemused. But it was a great education in terms of how to think about football.
You were back in England a year later - How come?
I was enjoying it and it was all good and then Anthuenis left for Anderlecht. Wim Jansen took over, the Dutch coach who later went to Celtic. I remember I came back for pre-season and being the typical British player I'd just had the summer off. I'd put a bit of weight on. I was totally used to just letting myself go and then coming back and getting fit. After the first few days I was running the best I could - but with the goalkeepers.
Wim Jansen slaughtered me in front of the whole squad and said I was a disgrace. It was just a different mind-set. They all just kept themselves fit in the summer. Nobody had told me to do it and it was just something I'd always done.
So I had a major row with him then and ended up leaving. To be fair when I got fit he did ask me to stay and withdraw my transfer request because he realised I could do a job for him. But by then I'd set up a move to Colchester and ended up going there for two years.
So it wasn't so much a desire to go back to England?
Well, the wife hadn't settled so that hadn't really helped. But I would have seen out my contract if Anthuenis had stayed or I hadn't had the fall-out with Wim Jansen who made it pretty clear he wasn't interested in an English centre-forward.
Was it a culture shock to come home?
It was bizarre. When I was in Belgium you just worked on technique day after day - touch, technique, touch, technique... When I signed for Colchester the chairman came up to me after the first few games and said, 'I've got an absolute steal with you, you look a million dollars'. Nobody could get the ball off me; I was so in control of my technique.
But training at Colchester meant playing on the Saturday, day off, five-a-side, game, five-a-side, travelling, game - you never actually did any training. It was just a treadmill. After about two months of training I remember going home to my missus and saying, 'I'm back to being the average pro I was before I went to Belgium'. It was horrible. I felt like all the touch I had just left me. There was nothing I could do about it.It's changed now but back then in the 80s there really was this huge difference between the technique of the continent and how we did things at home. For example, we would play 10 against 10 on half a pitch with a goal one yard wide in Belgium. It was all about keeping possession. You would practice passing and keeping the ball. I don't remember a goal being scored. English pros would have said, 'What's the point, there's no goal?' It was just a whole different mind-set.
Do you need to be a certain person to be open to moving abroad because you then went out to Hong Kong?
Like I say, I'd had the stuffing knocked out of me at Huddersfield when I didn't get offered a decent contract. And I thought to myself that if I'm going to have a career I'm going to have to go where the money is. When I came back to Colchester I was on £300 a week, interest rates were 15 per cent and I had a mortgage I couldn't afford to pay.
I got offered the chance to go to Stockport for another two years on the same money or I could go to Hong Kong for a £10,000 signing-on fee and a much bigger salary. It was a no-brainer. I just thought I could go there for a year and clear my debts.
So you were going with one-eye on it being a short-term thing?
Definitely, that's how I was viewing it. But I ended up taking my missus out there and my eldest son was born out there actually. We all went out there as a family and in the first year I was the top scorer.
It's a bit like Scotland in Hong Kong. If you play for Rangers or Celtic it's easy because you are in a very good side, and I was fortunate to be playing for the Celtic equivalent. I was the top scorer and offered another year and I enjoyed the lifestyle.
But you have to accept when you go there that your career is finished. That's what I did. I was there and I was going to earn as much as I could over a short period. And I stayed there and developed a TV career doing commentary. Then I started doing presenting.
While you were playing?!
Yeah we would train from 3pm to 5pm most days so it was very easy for me to go and do TV work on the evenings. It was never really an issue.
You say you had to accept your career was over. Was the standard that bad?
The problem with Hong Kong for most pros who came out there was that the coaching was just awful. They were just players or friends of the owners. The standard was really poor.
It did get to the stage where there were four or five foreign players per team. So if you thought you were one of the best players in your team then you had to remember you weren't being compared to the Chinese players as you were earning far more than them. You were being compared to all the foreigners in the other teams. If you took that approach - that this was the competitive edge you had to have - then you'd be okay.
But most players would come out there and think, 'I'm the best player in this team' and become really lazy. They'd not really put it in because the social life was fantastic. You could go out every night and then sleep it off because training didn't start until 3pm the next day. But I had my family there and I actually got fitter in Hong Kong than I had been at any point in my career.
In fact, I went to the Hong Kong institute and got a sports science degree. I did a three-year course in nutrition and biomechanics and all these sorts of things. When I graduated I actually became the fitness coach as well as playing.
So I approached it in a different way. I realised that Hong Kong was a really small pond and I could become a big fish there if I stayed. There were loads of big players who came through, lasted six months but then disappeared because they couldn't hack the lifestyle and [were unable to] focus.
I got my head down. I was top scorer in six of the nine years I was in Hong Kong. I learned very quickly that I had to ingratiate myself to the people over there. I could understand a little Cantonese and when we went away I would play the Chinese gambling games with all the other players. I just got on with all the other players.
One year I signed a new contract with Eastern and then was told by reporters that it had been ripped up and they'd signed Tony Sealy (ex-QPR and Sporting Lisbon forward) instead. I spoke to the club and they had just decided to make a change and get a new centre-forward in. There was nothing I could do.
I packed up my stuff and went home. Then another club in Hong Kong got in touch and offered me a game-by-game deal so I went back out there and thought I'd see what I could pick up. After six weeks of pre-season, Eastern had lost their first two games and the Chinese players were refusing to play with Tony Sealy and demanding I came back. The friendships I'd made out there had worked and I got a two-year contract!
And you played there for nearly a decade in the end, even becoming a full international...
After seven years I qualified through my residency and played for the national team. I'd gone from the possibility of having the you know what kicked out of me in the conference to playing in a World Cup for Hong Kong!
I was also fortunate enough to get a job with San Miguel as their PR director. I'd get up and work for San Miguel from 8am to 1pm, then I'd train with the football club from 3pm to 5pm and then do my TV work in the evenings for Star Sports. So I was doing three jobs! It's just a case of getting to know people and not thinking, 'Oh we're English and we do this and that'. That was the main lesson I learnt.
So do you think struggling British players are missing a trick not looking at opportunities abroad?
Definitely. If you really want football to be your career you have to change your mind-set. If you go places and you integrate then you quickly understand that it's a small world and you can make a lot of use of your talents. You've just got to be humble.