WHEN news that eight-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt was being lined up by Central Coast Mariners, a rival A-League club asked fans which celebrity they’d like to see trial at their club.
Tennis champion Roger Federer, swimming great Ian Thorpe and World Cup-winning cricket captain Steve Waugh were among the suggestions on the Facebook page of Newcastle Jets’ chief executive Lawrie McKinna. Even politician Pauline Hansen and singer Justin Bieber made the all-star list.
McKinna is former head coach of the Mariners and was once mayor of Gosford, the small town north of Sydney which hopes to host Jamaica’s Bolt in a six-week trial, starting next month.
But talk of Bolt’s sensational move to professional football were off limits earlier this week at a launch for a pre-season game between the neighbouring clubs in the Hunter Valley town of Maitland on August 25.
According to agent Tony Rallis, a deal between the Mariners and Bolt has been agreed in principle. But with 70 per cent of the money from the club’s owner Mike Charleworth, the remainder must come from the marquee-player fund of the cash-strapped Football Federation Australia.
“Once the FFA comes back and says that they’ll be part of the process, we’re going to the trial,” Rallis told the Big Sports Breakfast.
Thirty one-year-old Bolt is a lifelong Manchester United fan who has already trialled – unsuccessfully – at Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and Stromsgodset in Norway since retiring from athletics after last year’s world championships.
Central Coast are desperate for a boost after a miserable 2017-18 season when they again finished bottom of the table and attracted just 7,194 fans per game – their worst average crowd figure in 13 years of the A-League.
Mariners’ chief executive Shaun Mielekamp spoke enthusiastically of how Bolt could change the flagging fortunes of the 2013 A-League champions.
“This is a very real football opportunity, this is not a stunt or gimmick – we want to know if Usain can play,” Mielekamp told the Daily Telegraph.
“If he can, let’s light up the A-League and bring one of the biggest named athletes in sport to the Central Coast. He’s got a very good left foot… and the feedback we have received from Germany and Norway is that he is a very good learner.”
It won’t be the first novelty signing the Mariners have made in recent seasons. In the 2015-16 campaign, they boasted that they had lured former Liverpool and Spain attacker Luis Garcia to Gosford. The only problem was that he was 37 at the time, and prone to injuries.
Garcia played only 10 games, scoring two goals, as Central Coast again finished at the bottom of the table, with just three wins in the 27-match season.
No one can question Bolt’s passion and enthusiasm for football. He was a special guest at the 2018 World Cup final as France defeated Croatia in Moscow on July 15.
But at a time when the A-League is striving for credibility, amid turmoil behind the scenes due to issues of how to best govern the sport, the last thing Australian football needs is a circus act.
Despite his electrifying pace, Bolt’s presence would do little to improve Central Coast’s plummeting fortunes in terms of crowds or results.
As Fox Sports Australia broadcaster Simon Hill pointed out last week, the Mariners have just shown the door to the fastest player in the A-League, due to his failure to make an impact.
Gosford-born winger Trent Buhagiar, who had a best time of 10.8 seconds for 100 metres, started only four games in the 2017-18 season. He will line up for rivals Sydney FC in the upcoming campaign. And while Bolt’s debut may attract a larger-than-usual crowd, the fans would surely turn away for subsequent games if the Mariners return to their losing ways.
Central Coast’s new manager Mike Mulvey, who coached clubs in Malaysia and Thailand after winning the A-League double with Brisbane Roar in 2013-14, reportedly had a telephone conversation with Bolt this week. It would be acceptable if Mulvey had issued a warm invitation to Bolt to come to Gosford. But only as a guest of honour for Central Coast’s opening home game of the season, and to run a lap of honour at Bluetongue Stadium – not to pull on the club’s yellow and blue shirt.
Bolt has as much a place on the professional football field as veteran Aussie forward Tim Cahill does in the 100 metres’ heats at next year’s IAAF World Championships in Qatar.
Jason Dasey is Singapore-based broadcaster and event emcee. Twitter: @JasonDasey