Usain in the membrane: Why Bolt in the A-League makes no sense

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By Evan Morgan Grahame, Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    A few weeks ago, when the A-League’s impassioned fan-base were dallying through that fleeting period, allowing themselves – however fantastically, in hindsight – a few moments to imagine Andres Iniesta stepping out onto Australian pitches in 2018-19, that seemed at the time the upper limits of marquee fantasy.

    A player who had been a wholly justified star and starter for Barcelona and Spain in the season just ended was perhaps now going to kit up for Sydney FC, or Melbourne City; it would have been an unprecedented arrival. A few days later, with Iniesta posing with Vissel Kobe shirt in hand and contract signed, we all felt a little silly.

    I don’t know about you all, but I’m feeling a little sillier – perhaps just on the behalf of the Central Coast Mariners – now. Where Iniesta had been pleasant fantasy, the confirmation that Usain Bolt is about to undergo a trial at the Mariners has taken fantasy into that wholly unpleasant Dali-esque realm of the disturbingly surreal.

    Bolt is a sprinter, and retired almost a year ago. He has never held a contract as a professional footballer. His most recent run-out with studs instead of spikes saw him face-off against a team comprised 50-year-old ex-footballers, Robbie Williams and Mo Farah. He looked pretty ordinary against them, too. Most notable was the very neat finish he clipped past 54-year-old David Seaman, having been utterly unaware he’d been glaringly offside.

    There is no timeline in which it is appropriate, at this stage in the A-League’s existence, for Bolt to even be considered for a trial, let alone a contract. The A-League dwindled a little last season, with a general downturn in crowds and a slight sense of momentum lost, but if that is a problem, this cannot be the solution.

    The bump in coverage and, perhaps, crowds Bolt might prompt may well be balanced out by the negative reaction we’re already seeing from the league’s established supportership. Sokkah Twitter is in flames, not that it’s not smouldering along at the best of times.

    Multiple ex-players – Daniel McBreen and Clint Bolton, for example – have chimed in criticising the decision, pouring cold water on Bolt’s actual footballing ability, and pointing out how alienating the whole charade is for the NPL clubs and officials who have spent the last few years yearning for more space to open up in A-League squads so that young local talent might fill it. 

    Usain Bolt

    Gold medalist Usain Bolt of Jamaica (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

    We have literally just had a conversation about how Australian football isn’t producing as many technically proficient young attackers as we need, and how this has stunted the reigns of the last two Socceroos managers. Central to that discussion was the issue of how foreign A-League marquee players are mostly attackers – many of them strikers – who block young attackers from being blooded in first-team positions.

    Bolt is a striker – if indeed we can describe him as such without air quotes – as well as being a non-footballer; it’s difficult to conceive of a more sneering, money-grubbing, short-termist gesture to make in the wake of this important post-World Cup discussion. 

    The statements Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp has made in the last few days make for truly remarkable reading. In one breath he said this: “For us it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves,” and ““We won’t know until it happens. It may not happen. We’ve just got to keep a very level headed approach to us.”

    Then, in the very next breath, Mielekamp says ““When he [Bolt] does perform and when he does score a goal, that’s the big moment. That’s the bit that everyone wants. Let’s not shut the door on that opportunity. Let’s see if it will become a reality.”

    Mielekamp waxes lyrical about potential sponsors already making approaches, paints vivid pictures of Bolt drawing packed stadiums around the country. When the circus gets a new sideshow freak, crowds flock to ooh and aah, to point and chortle, and they pay their fare to press their face to the fence and gawk.

    Gimmicks tend to tease out an immediate and fairly showy reaction, it’s true. And then the novelty wears off, or the attraction moves on, and what are we left with? A reputation as a Mickey Mouse league, willing to debase itself for a short-term cash grab, slobbering and eager to accommodate any well-known quasi-athlete searching the world for a football club desperate enough to act as a feather in his cap.

    Wout Brama

    Wout Brama of the Central Coast Mariners (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

    The Mariners – and the FFA, if indeed the rumours of their chipping in to grease the wheels of this wretched process – need to stop and think what they stand to gain and to lose.

    The sight of Bolt sprinting in a straight line down the wing of the Central Coast Stadium, posing with the giant tomato sauce bottle, doing the lightning bolt celebration after accidentally arsing the ball over the line during a set piece scuffle; the scene is high farce, many orders of magnitude greater than the Israel Folau sortie into AFL.

    The best case scenario – which is extremely unlikely to eventuate – still hurts the reputation of the league, as well as directly or indirectly hindering youth development. It’s not worth the potential upsides.

    We’ve just seen Croatian-Australia glow illuminated during the Croatian’s run to the World Cup final. Viewing figures for graveyard World Cup games involving two foreign teams have drawn astonishing audiences on SBS.

    We have two home-grown coaches making A-League debuts as senior gaffers this season, in Steve Corica and Mark Rudan. There was an impassioned, complex debate around the right tactical formula for the Roos to adopt during the World Cup. Australia is a country that takes its football seriously, that is ready for a mature competition, that, generally speaking, is glad the marquee-crazed, slightly giddy early years of the A-League are over.

    Romario and Benito Carbone have made way for Milos Ninkovic and Besart Berisha, and there is no reason to disrupt this evolutionary direction. Bolt’s presence threatens all of this, all for the sake of a few Daily Telegraph headlines, and a handful of plastic fans. 

    In the past, Bolt has expressed tangible interest in playing professional cricket, in the Big Bash League. He has played in the NBA Celebrity Game at All-Star Weekend. He grabbed headlines earlier this year when he set-up a ‘trial’ with Borussia Dortmund, a club that just happens to have Puma as their major sponsor and kit provider; Puma are Bolt’s sponsor too.

    He is conducting a world-wide sporting taste-test, posing for the cameras, building his post-retirement brand, and collecting barrows of money doing it. It was his agent who offered Bolt to the A-League’s clubs. This is another publicity stunt, and the Mariners should rise above it. 

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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    The Crowd Says (111)

    • July 19th 2018 @ 6:41am
      Nick Symonds said | July 19th 2018 @ 6:41am | ! Report

      • Roar Guru

        July 19th 2018 @ 9:42am
        peeeko said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:42am | ! Report

        how long is that going to last for and will it have any long term benefits? – no
        the saying that any publicity is good publicity is from someone who believes too much marketing speak

      • July 19th 2018 @ 9:59am
        Roger said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:59am | ! Report

        You need to re-read (and comprehend) the article.

        This – ” When the circus gets a new sideshow freak, crowds flock to ooh and aah, to point and chortle, and they pay their fare to press their face to the fence and gawk.” – is one of the best and most pertinent lines I’ve read on The Roar for a long time.

        • July 19th 2018 @ 12:04pm
          Nemesis said | July 19th 2018 @ 12:04pm | ! Report

          Is that what happened in NFL when Hayne was playing?
          Does that still happen in AFL when the Canadian RU player & the gridiron players are on the field?
          Isn’t one of the best players in AFL a guy who couldn’t make it at professional basketball?

          • July 19th 2018 @ 2:46pm
            Perry Bridge said | July 19th 2018 @ 2:46pm | ! Report

            #Nemesis

            Pretty well the entire Australian Boomers basketball team were guys that didn’t make it at AFL (either by choice or necessity).

            Horses for courses.

            Certainly when Mike Pyke (the Canadian RU player) first started in the AFL there were massive skeptics and labeling the guy as the worst player in the league.
            Same with Mason Cox at Collingwood.

            What they had was desirable attributes, fundamental skills, no inherent bad habits and tremendous work ethic and attention to detail. They succeeded where many others fail. And that was playing within their limitations for a pretty defined role. It’s not easy – it’s only taken Majak Daw the best part of 10 years to become an overnight success!!

            But – none of those guys were ‘PR’ stunts – – that was Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt – and they benefited from a fairly peculiar set of circumstances and as a sporting ‘experiment’ it was interesting to watch play out.

            Now – for Usain Bolt in soccer – does he bring certain desirable attributes to the table? At 195 cm tall, is his height and speed a definitive advantage? Can his skill set be limited to a defined role? First of all – could you find a place for him on the field that won’t overly weaken the side?

            I’d be more concerned though around the finances of the exercise. Surely not what’s needed now?

            • July 19th 2018 @ 3:01pm
              Nemesis said | July 19th 2018 @ 3:01pm | ! Report

              @Perry Bridge

              Is Usain Bolt any good as a footballer? I don’t know because I’ve never seen him.

              From what I’ve read he grew up playing football & cricket, so, if this is true, he has the basic technical ability in the sport.

              We know he has the requisite mental strength to be a professional athlete.

              Does he have the requisite physical attributes? Well the 6 week trial will be used to assess him.

              If Bolt has the ability, under pressure, to cross the ball accurately, or pass the ball accurately; and to make around 50x 50m sprints over 90 minutes, I’d say he’d make an enormous contribution to any attack. He doesn’t need to dribble. Doesn’t need to take players on. Just get to the ball first & cut the ball back to a player, or cross the ball. That’s it. I’d allow him the luxury of not needing to move deeper into defence than 10m into his own half.

            • July 19th 2018 @ 3:30pm
              Ian said | July 19th 2018 @ 3:30pm | ! Report

              Or the basketball players chose basketball over AFL.

              Did you ask every basketball player if they really wanted to play AFL over basketball?

              You continually take the viewpoint that everyone’s first choice sport is AFL.

              With basketball they get to represent Australia and travel overseas playing international teams and go to the Olympics.

              Maybe, just maybe, not everyone wants to represent an inner Melbourne suburb over their country.

              • July 19th 2018 @ 9:17pm
                MQ said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:17pm | ! Report

                Does it matter? Stacks of kids grow up playing multiple sports, and then they have to specialise in their mid-teens. I imagine a stack of things are weighed up in deciding which sport to stick to.

              • July 20th 2018 @ 11:27am
                Perry Bridge said | July 20th 2018 @ 11:27am | ! Report

                #Ian

                I believe I covered that via “either by choice or necessity”.

                Note the word “choice”. There’s a whole bunch of kids as MQ refers to playing multiple sports as juniors.

                We’ve seen nice examples of a guy like Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury opted out of a national basketball program which allowed a guy like Paddy Mills (who was on the radar as a junior footballer) to get in in his place and pursue his basketball career. Choices being made by individuals.

            • July 19th 2018 @ 10:32pm
              Old Greg said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:32pm | ! Report

              The difference is Mike Pyke and Mason Cox went to a game that relies on athleticism rather than skill. If you’re athletic and tall it’s not so hard to make the transaction from basketballer to ruckman, whereas elite footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo and Ivan Rakitic have been dribbling footballs since they were in nappies.

              If Bolt thinks he can get up to scratch to play at a professional level in six weeks, let alone play like Mario Mandzukic, he is a lunatic.

              • July 20th 2018 @ 11:41am
                Perry Bridge said | July 20th 2018 @ 11:41am | ! Report

                #Old Greg

                Please don’t undersell what Pyke and now Cox have achieved – they started with a [retty basic tool box and beyond that a blank canvas.

                As individuals – they have progressed via both intelligent coaching and personal growth to initially be able to fulfill a narrow role (this is the key – having that definable role – which ruck is) and then to developing their skills and game sense to become far from a liability.

                The scope of soccer is far more narrow – in respect to skills – while yes you can head the ball the reality is you can’t be out there if you can’t kick/dribble/evade etc. In Aust Footy these (cross coders in the ruck) guys generally get told to NOT kick in their first years – if taking a mark or get a free, other players will run off for a handball from them.

                However – both Pyke and Cox developed those skills. Cox has more of a soccer background ironically enough. The basketball was almost accidental. His footy this year has exploded to making him a vital cog in the functioning of Collingwoods attack. Very interesting to track – he’s gone from being simply ‘athletic and tall’ to being skilled and knowledgeable. But it wasn’t overnight. The main contrast is probably not so fairly made to Ronaldo – more appropriate to a goalkeeper (a narrow scope).

                For Bolt – can he pass consistently to the advantage of his team mates or will he be slowing them down and wrong footing them? After the novelty wears off – how long would he have to shape up?

        • July 19th 2018 @ 4:20pm
          Roger said | July 19th 2018 @ 4:20pm | ! Report

          Tbf at least Hayne and the other footballers you mention had a background in catching, kicking, running with and other pursuits involving pigskin/artificial balls. They weren’t attempting, at an age where they were no longer competitive at their chosen sport, to pursue a career at something completely foreign, with little to no prospects of carving out a professional career at the new venture…

          • July 19th 2018 @ 7:56pm
            punter said | July 19th 2018 @ 7:56pm | ! Report

            ‘no longer competitive at their chosen sport’

            He came 3rd at the World Championship in 2017, last year. get your facts right.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 11:59am
        realfootball said | July 19th 2018 @ 11:59am | ! Report

        No, Nick. All publicity is NOT good publicity.

        Trust me, I spent years as a creative in advertising and PR.

    • July 19th 2018 @ 7:04am
      AR said | July 19th 2018 @ 7:04am | ! Report

      I like it.

      And it could give the ALeague a real boost.

      We could have all sorts of retired sports stars – Bradley Wiggins could be a midfielder for SFC, Warnie a genuine No.10 for the Roar, Dawn Fraser in goal for the Victory…

      Imagine the metrics!

      • July 19th 2018 @ 9:11am
        Kangas said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:11am | ! Report

        Ha. 😂
        get James hird and Steven Dank to coach the mariners

    • July 19th 2018 @ 7:07am
      Evan Askew said | July 19th 2018 @ 7:07am | ! Report

      I was listening to triple m the other day when Luke Libby and Dobbo (minus Libbie in her defence, who has being replaced by the smug margot parker, ex Bronco corey parkers wife.). Before I switched off in disgust after five seconds the Usain Bolt fiasco was the first thing mentioned. So yes, the “mainstream media” was talking about football and the A league. But this was the dialogue as I remember it.”The A league, its massive for soccer that he would come to the a Leauge but why would he want to? DIdn’t he see Australia at the world cup.” So this is the sort of quality ananlysis that we are going to get from the pathetic mainstream media in the coming weeks as a result of this ill advised move. Let him try and make a name in NPL or city leagues before he is even considered for the A league.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 9:01am
        chris said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:01am | ! Report

        Evan I didnt know Triple M still existed in Sydney?
        With comments like that its any wonder no one listens to them anymore.

        • July 19th 2018 @ 9:06pm
          Evan askew said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:06pm | ! Report

          I keep forgetting to put all my music on my new phone. For a rock station it shits me that there is no alice in chains or pantera

    • July 19th 2018 @ 7:29am
      cruyff turn said | July 19th 2018 @ 7:29am | ! Report

      Will be so angry if this goes through. An absolute joke!

      The bit which gets me is that it’s a complete slap in the face for any youngster in the NPL, who’s busting a nut to get an A-League contract. And what about the Mariners Centre of Excellence, which opened a few years ago with much fanfare and ceremony? What’s its purpose, given the club is prepared to pass over local youth for a non-footballer on the wrong side of 30?

      And then spare a thought for Mulvey, brand new at the club, who will no doubt be told from above how to use UB, should he be signed.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 9:09am
        Kangas said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        Every young player the mariners produce gets stolen by a Sydney or Melbourne club for zero transfer fee . What’s your solution to that?

        Bolt is a bit of a preseason laugh

        • July 19th 2018 @ 9:28pm
          BrainsTrust said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:28pm | ! Report

          What a complete load of rubbish.
          In fact Caceres the only one was bought by Man City when he went to Melbourne City.
          DId they produce De Silva the one they currelntly are whinging about?
          You could argue Appiah was produced at WSW and sold by CCM.
          Kalik,Duke,Sainsbury,Rogic,Matt Ryan,Amini,Bozanic,Simon,Griffiths, Vukovic ,Jedinak all sold overseas.
          What happens to all that money down the pit and the endless hunger of the Mariners owner/beggar never ends along with all the excuses.

          • July 19th 2018 @ 11:18pm
            Kangas said | July 19th 2018 @ 11:18pm | ! Report

            incorrect

            Lachie Wales is the latest in a long production line . Terrigal kid off to Melbourne City for nothing

    • July 19th 2018 @ 7:41am
      Onside said | July 19th 2018 @ 7:41am | ! Report

      A terminal distraction.

    • July 19th 2018 @ 7:48am
      jamesb said | July 19th 2018 @ 7:48am | ! Report

      This is a joke. It’s worse than Folau and Hunt signing for the AFL. At least Folau and Hunt played a in professional football code. Whereas with Bolt, he was a sprinter.

      I hope Bolt doesn’t get signed up with CCM. It would be a lose-lose situation for the A League. If Bolt fails, everyone would laugh at Bolt, CCM and the A League. If Bolt succeeds, then people will say that the A League is a weak competition.

      Terrible idea. And I feel sorry for a young kid trying to break through into the A League.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 10:47am
        Fadida said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:47am | ! Report

        Is it worse though? Bolt has grown up a football fan. He knows the rules, plays the game. Hunt and Folau needed the rules explained to them and to be taught how to play the game

        • July 19th 2018 @ 2:35pm
          IAP said | July 19th 2018 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

          Plus, soccer is a very easy game to play; he’ll pick it up in no time.

          • July 20th 2018 @ 4:35pm
            Aethelbert said | July 20th 2018 @ 4:35pm | ! Report

            Then why don’t you pick it up?

            You’ll be alongside Messi and Ronaldo in no time!

        • July 20th 2018 @ 3:33pm
          Perry Bridge said | July 20th 2018 @ 3:33pm | ! Report

          Hunt had played the game at school – enough to have displayed his natural talent – and his brother in law was an AFL player…..who went onto played college American football.

          The Scott Harding story – after a middling career in the AFL (Brisbane/Port) – he found himself at Uni of Hawaii.

          It’s funny how we talk up or down cross coders – but, for any decent coach there’s something to work with. This article from 2014 was interesting: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2014/08/21/two-way-players-james-conner-scott-harding-kevin-pope-shaq-thompson/14395043/

          The US football is very narrow, the defensive team, the offensive team, very specialist roles. This is coached and practiced from very early on.

          Then to see comments like:
          “Scott Harding might be the most versatile player in college football.”
          “I wish we had a whole team of Scott Hardings.”

          And you just look at that and ponder that over specialising might be thwarting natural expression and development. So – good luck to the Hunt, Hayne, Folau, Pyke, Cox and if it comes to that Bolt experiments because when they succeed they are a reminder to not be too quick to pigeon hole and set limits on people and for coaches to be perhaps a little less rigid in their traditional process driven attitudes and become a little more open minded??

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