Gosford is a small town with big ambitions. Nestled on Australia’s central coast about 50 miles from Sydney, it has a population of fewer than 4,000 but is the commercial and administrative centre of the region.
It has an art gallery and a historic harbour, a classic car museum and the “entertainment hub” of Mann Street. There is a A$650m plan to regenerate the centre and Gosford is twinned with both a ward in Tokyo and a city in western Slovakia. This week it was also the centre of the sporting universe. Well, almost.
“Reggae League – Legend Usain Bolt to play A-League SOCCER! in NSW” ran the headline on the Australian Daily Telegraph. “Usain Bolt’s Central Coast Mariners trial set to make headlines for A-League” was the self-fulfilling prophecy shared by the national broadcaster ABC. Bolt, the Olympic icon, was to undergo a six-week trial at little old Gosford’s Central Coast Mariners with the aim of signing professional terms. He would do so under the watchful eye of Mike Phelan, the former Manchester United assistant and Hull manager, now the Mariners’ sporting director.
At least that is how it was reported. In truth, at the time of writing, the trial has yet to begin and may never happen at all. In the past year Bolt has trained with three other clubs, Borussia Dortmund, the Norwegian side Stromsgodset and South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns. None of the trips ended with Bolt signing for the club but each provided a flurry of headlines, a gaggle of cameras and the odd flirtatious remark from the Jamaican.
“Maybe a club will see something and decide to give me a chance,” he said before his Norwegian trip, sounding like a plucky little nobody rather than the most famous track and field athlete in the world and international face of Visa, Gatorade and the luxury watch brand Hublot. Bolt also has an advertising deal with the Australian telecoms company Optus.
If there is a sense that inviting Bolt down to your club for a quick training session is not a bad way to generate publicity, it was not exactly quashed by the actions of the Mariners this week. Only after the Telegraph ran their Bolt back-page scoop did the Gosford club feel it necessary to release a statement that they were simply in “discussions” with Bolt over a trial, and that said trial would not be a commitment to provide a contract.
After that it also became clear, thanks to remarks by Bolt’s agent Tony Rallis, that even the trial was dependent on other elements falling into place, namely the willingness of the Football Federation Australia to stump up some of their “marquee fund” to finance a contract for Bolt should it ever get to that stage.
As yet the FFA has yet to offer up the money (there is a reported “seven-figure sum” available per season, and they may prefer to spend it on someone who has played professional football before instead) and therefore the trial is in limbo.
What with nature abhorring a vacuum, the wait has been filled with stories of other clubs expressing their interest in signing the “fastest man on Earth”. The newly created US club Las Vegas Lights got some publicity of their own, for example, after their owner, Brett Lashbrook, talked up a potential move. “Of course we have an interest in Usain Bolt. Why wouldn’t we?” he told ESPN. There is some doubt as to Las Vegas’s ability to match the Jamaican’s wage demands, however.
One thing that is not really in dispute is Bolt’s desire to play football. He insisted during his stint at Dortmund that he intended to make it as a professional and do so “at a high level”. The longer his trials go on, the more of a challenge this would seem and those who watched Bolt perform in the televised charity match Soccer Aid earlier this summer will have noted that the rest of his footballing skillset does not quite match up to his pace.
Perhaps, in the end, Bolt will join a long and illustrious list of athletes who have looked for a second act in the beautiful game only to have to settle for a bit part.
The cricketer Denis Compton is the exception that proves the rule, though even the great batsman was a regular in the Arsenal first team only during the second world war. In more modern times Ian Botham remains perhaps the most famous ever Scunthorpe player but made only seven starts for the Irons (he did, however, flourish in their reserves, scoring a hat-trick against Blackpool).
One of Britain’s greatest ever Olympians, Daley Thompson, signed for Mansfield Town in 1995. “It’s no gimmick,” Mansfield’s manager Andy King said at the time. “When Ian Botham signed for Scunthorpe, that was a gimmick. Daley is an athlete – Botham wasn’t.” Thompson never made an appearance for the first team.
The Usain Bolt football odyssey may continue for a little while yet but, if the great man is to take a lesson from history, it might be this: do not necessarily take a football club at its word.