Yes, that’s right, Emile Heskey has moved to the Newcastle Jets. But don’t shed a tear, for England’s loss is Australia’s gain. You might, however, want to spare a thought for poor Alessandro Del Piero, who had the misfortune to announce his own move down under just days before the news of the Heskey deal broke. As the collective excitement of Australian football fans reached feverish proportions at the arrival of Heskey, Del Piero snuck quietly in the back door to sign a two tear deal with Sydney FC.
At this point I should point out I’m only writing with a modicum of jest. Any regular readers (are there any?) will know I’ve used this blog to confess my true feelings for Emile before. I’m sincerely of the opinion that Heskey was frequently the victim of short-sighted managerial decisions that meant for a good period of his career his strengths were wasted. I’m not short-sighted enough myself to ignore that, like all of us, he has his flaws, but I firmly believe that he has the potential to be very successful with the Jets.
There have been many brave new frontiers in football in recent years, from the rejuvenation of Major League Soccer with its short-lived mainstream UK TV deal to the recent influx of foreign talent into the Chinese Super League. But the Australian A-League never really seems to have captured the imagination of football fans in Britain, despite the pre-existing sporting rivalries shared between Blighty and Oz. In fact, the prevailing perception here appears to be one of low quality football and disappointing crowds, and of a public with little interest in the game.
The uneducated may assume Heskey’s move to New South Wales represents something of a graveyard shift, a final payday in a career that is fading out. Many more will view Del Piero’s transfer with equal scepticism. But, although there is no doubt that Heskey – sorry Del Piero – will become the biggest name ever to have played in the A-League, it is not a competition built on expensive imports. Indeed, with a list of Australian-born stars like Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and Mark Viduka having all enjoyed glittering careers in the Premier League, and journeyman striker Michael Bridges and property mogul Robbie Fowler being the biggest names to move the other way, the balance of talent sees the pommes far more in debt to our Australian cousins than vice-versa.
It is the well travelled Bridges that Heskey may ultimately replace at the Jets as the one time Leeds United and Hull City forward enters a second spell of retirement. Bridges though found the time to give the arrival of Heskey his own seal of approval by announcing that it was a “tremendous signing”, whilst Jets chief executive office Robbie Middleby purred that “to secure the signature of Emile is a fantastic result for the Jets and for the A-League.”
But beneath the polished veneer lacquered over the arrival of Heskey by Middleby and Bridges there remains very real problems at the club. Enigmatic owner and financial backer Nathan Tinkler has attracted criticism in Australia for emigrating to Singapore earlier in the year, leaving behind him a series of companies that are widely rumoured to have substantial debts. Tinkler, who made his money through Australia’s lucrative mining industry, has cut himself off entirely from the media since relocating, and the sudden withdrawal of his presence – and perhaps his pockets – has left the Jets in a precarious position.
Such financial instability is by no means confined to New South Wales either. In the last year and a half the A-League has lost Queensland based outfits North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United to bankruptcy. The demise of Gold Coast, despite the financial backing of Clive Palmer, who along with Tinkler is regarded as one of the wealthiest men in Australia, is worryingly prophetic to Jets fans.
Elsewhere A-League new boys the Western Sydney Warriors, who have been linked with Michael Ballack over recent weeks, are backed by the Football Federation of Australia after attempts to find investors for the new franchise in what is considered the heartland of Australian football failed. The hope is that the Warriors will fill the void left by the loss of the Fury and Gold Coast, and will attract buyers as the season develops. But so far they have attracted more negative press than positive after Warriors fans were involved crowd trouble in two pre-season friendlies that left a child injured, and saw two supporters receive five year football banning orders for their part in the trouble.
Though the quality of football on the pitch is perhaps the area in which Australian football is improving the quickest, the wealth of the emerging Asian leagues are still a very real threat to developing home grown talent. Internationally Australia are struggling too since their relocation to the Asian Football Confederation. Indeed, just a fortnight ago Australia were beaten 2-1 by Jordan in Amman to leave head coach Holger Osieck’s side facing the very real possibility of missing out on a place at the 2014 World Cup. Tellingly Osieck’s starting eleven that day featured six players based in Asia, and none who are based in Oceania.
Wrestling interest back towards the A-League and dealing with this Asian complex is key if Australian football is to grow. Though Del Piero and Heskey may be thirty-seven and thirty-four years old respectively, the hope is that they can spark some real interest in the game, get supporters through the turnstiles and ease some of the financial burden on their struggling clubs. I for one will be watching with interest. I just hope I’m not alone.