Once upon a time, young Australian footballers would book the next available flight at the very mention of the word ‘Europe’. But not anymore. Not quite.
Together, the eleventh-hour backflip from Tom Rogic and Mathew Ryan’s suspicious ‘shoulder injury’ this past week feels like something of a touchstone moment for the A-League.
Rogic was on the brink of a transfer to Premier League relegation dogfighters Reading, while Ryan was en route to Glasgow for a trial with the reborn Rangers, who are in the fourth division and cannot sign any new players for months.
Strange ones, to say the least. The Central Coast Mariners pair might have dodged a bullet each, depending on who you ask.
Was the rough-and-tumble Championship – Rogic’s likely eventual home – the right place for the first proper No.10 Australia’s had in years?
And surely the A-League is better than the dungeon of Scottish football where the Rs currently reside?
Both Rogic and Ryan, newly-minted Socceroos, have designs on being in Brazil in June next year – and not for a holiday.
Moves overseas and a full, proper-length season in a competition at least one level up from the A-League remain in their best interests.
But one wrong call or a slice of ill fortune and either of them could be labelled ‘damaged goods’ in a split second and forced to fend for themselves in football’s unforgiving wilderness. Dramatic, but true.
The trouble is, waiting for the perfect transfer to come along is far easier said than done – particularly when a team in the Premier League or with Rangers-level prestige knocks on the door and offers four or five times your current wage and a life you once dreamed about.
That’s just internal pressure. What about outside of what the players want?
First, there is the agent.
One thing most young journalists learn when they begin to cover football is that few things, if any, are exactly as they seem in this game. Particularly in Australia.
Usually if something doesn’t make sense on face value, it’s because there is a string-puller in the background who knows a guy at one club, or has ties in another country, or there’s a clause in a contract somewhere.
It’s not as if there is a big computerised list of players looking for a move that is visible to every club in the world, Football Manager-style.
As idealistic as a shift to a ‘technical’ country like Germany or Holland might be, it’s people and connections that invariably determine where and when players go.
Why Rangers for Ryan, and why now? Because his contract allows him to trial overseas at any time, and Central Coast can’t stop him. Plus, in Lawrie McKinna there is the Scottish link.
Why Reading for Rogic? His agent, Andy Bernal, used to play for them.
Not only are the men behind the men offering their ticks of approval for clubs they might have a vested interest in seeing their clients play at, but invariably there is a gentle nudge towards the door from the selling club.
This is an imperfect A-League where transfer money is an important source of rolled gold revenue for clubs that, even given the recent boom, struggle to make ends meet.
Central Coast, with a long list of debts that need servicing, stands as a case in point.
Rogic and Ryan will go soon, obviously. They are too good not to. But the Mariners would feel foolish to see them do so without at least a six-figure parting gift.
Meanwhile, as the player grapples with a sense of loyalty to his club – and perhaps an inner desire to deliver that transfer fee before bidding farewell – his agent advises not to sign any long-term deals in Australia so that options are kept open.
These are the thoughts that swim inside a player’s head when a prospective move overseas presents itself.
A confusing and perhaps concerning cocktail of emotions and pressures for a young man to deal with, but one that it’s important we realise can now be quelled quite easily.
How? Because the A-League is no longer detrimental to one’s development – if it ever was, thank you very much Pim.
We know that the A-League is gathering pace on and off the park, but that can sometimes feel like fluff until we can sense actual footballing benefits as a result.
This is one of them – there is no longer a rush to go. At least, there shouldn’t be.
If this was two or three years ago, for instance, Rogic would already be wearing Reading’s blue and white hoops and Ryan would be tucking into the first in a long line of haggises for tea.
But now, our own competition can offer more. And it will continue to offer more, until the day that a young player is so dominant they can turn up to a match and know for certain that if they put in their best they will go home with the match ball.
That’s not yet for Rogic, who is yet to even complete a full season. Don’t forget, he started this one poorly and is learning a hard lesson at the moment via suspension.
As for Ryan, well, practice makes perfect for goalkeepers. A wunderkind like him can’t be rotting on a bench or in a fourth division. He can afford to wait.
There have never been more eyes fixed on Australia’s league – both inside the country and the kind of “curious eyes” from elsewhere that Alessandro Del Piero once spoke about.
That makes the A-League the perfect holding bay for both these players, and for many more in the future.
It is time for all parties – the players, their parents, their advisors and their clubs – to take a deep breath in among the madness of the silly season and appreciate this.