As I have written previously, the Australian A-League introduced the marquee player system as a way of attracting quality players while preventing expensive bidding wars that risked placing clubs in financial danger before the season was even underway.
A well selected overseas marquee player offers more to a club and the League than just razzle and dazzle on the park. A true marquee player draws in the media, attracts attention of the wider public, brings more people through the turnstiles and lends football some credibility. For so long the slave of the ugly sisters of league, union and Australian Rules, a true marquee is the fairy godmother bringing the A-League to the Ball.
Season 1 — 2005/06
There were only two overseas marquee players in the inaugural A-League season in 2005/06. Despite the hype and excitement around the new competition, clubs were acutely aware of the pressure to remain financially prudent. Much was riding on the A League achieving what the NSL could not — a vibrant, successful and sustainable competition.
The first overseas marquee signing was quite a coup for the League and his chosen club of Sydney FC. Attracted by a million dollar salary and a Sydney waterfront apartment, Yorke was a very popular signing. Despite some concerns he would be the precious superstar type, Yorke quickly impressed fans across the country with his high work rate and 7 goals (just two behind the eventual top scorer for the season). Difficulties with management saw Yorke traded at the end of the season to Sunderland where he reunited with former Man Utd teammate and new Sunderland manager Roy Keane. Yorke was a true marquee player — he brought a sense of glamour to the League while continuing to be successful on the field.
Shengqing Qu was a successful striker in the local competition in China in the late 90s and early 2000. He also achieved a level of success with Adelaide Utd as a striker, scoring just as many goals as Yorke did. However, the Australian public’s ignorance of the Asian leagues (understandable at the time as this was the era of Oceania) meant that Qu could never hope to compete with Yorke for the attention of the public.
Season 2 — 2006/07
Despite the success of Yorke, it seemed that clubs were not prepared to splash around big dollars for an overseas player. Perhaps the internal turmoil at Sydney FC left clubs feeling gun shy and unwilling to take too many risks, and risks they were with neither marquee player leaving much of an impression on the League or indeed even their chosen clubs.
Qu returned to China in the off-season but re-signed with Adelaide later in the season. He was plagued by ankle problems and spent large parts of the season on the injured list. Qu’s form dropped to such an extent and didn’t even feature in the top 30 goal scorers, a fatal situation for a marquee striker. His contract was not renewed at the end of the season.
Something of a journeyman in the Scottish and English Leagues, Gemmill was signed by the New Zealand Knights in their final season before the club ran out of money and had its licence to operate in the A-League revoked (later replaced by the Wellington Phoenix for Season 3). Gemmill did nothing of note at all during 2006/07 and retired at the end of the season after playing for a club that could only muster an average home crowd of just over 3,000 a game .
The above demonstrates that the A-League gained little from overseas marquee players in Season 2.
Season 3 — 2007/08
After the poor strike rate for overseas marquees in Season 2, there were some big name signings in 2007/08. With the League settling in as a worthy competitor for the attention of the sports loving public, clubs had a new-found confidence when it came to spending the big bucks.
Juninho was a big signing no matter the league. Signed on a multi-million 2 year contract with Sydney FC, he spent a lot of time in stands injured, much to everyone’s frustration (including his own). The Little Master started with a lot of interest and promise but by season’s end, rumours were that the second year of his contract was in doubt and left Sydney FC questioning the value of big name overseas signings. At the time of writing, Juninho had returned to Brazil to spend time with his family. Technically still contracted to Sydney FC, his position there has been placed in doubt with Australian striker John Aloisi confirmed as Sydney’s marquee for Season 4.
Newcastle Jets thought they were signing a former European great who was looking to revive his flagging career. What they got was an overweight and unfit player forced on the manager by the club owner, making no one happy. Newcastle’s suffered in the first half of the season. Jardel made it clear he wished to remain with the club and help out with training and mentoring but was released from his contract. Newcastle’s fortunes changed almost immediately as they went from also-rans to eventual Grand Final winners.
Looking at the results, it is apparent that the overseas marquee system has provided mixed results over the first 3 seasons of the League. From 5 overseas marquee players, only one, Dwight Yorke, could be considered an unqualified success. He scored goals, brought glamour to and sparked interest in the inaugural A-League season. While Shegqing Qu also scored goals in the first season, he was never going to be a “glamour” signing and spent large parts of his second season injured before returning to China.
Of the remaining players, I hadn’t even heard of Scot Gemmill until I started research for this article. Part of this ignorance is because the NZ Knights were an abysmal team that even no one in New Zealand wanted to watch play, but also because he did nothing all season. Mario Jardel was an example of the kind of marquee player that the A-League should be avoiding — an once-was trading on past glories while trying to be a once-again. Juninho promised so much but spent most of his season on the bench, unable to adjust to the physical nature of Australian football (which is strange when you consider how well he did in the EPL). However I can’t fault Sydney FC for trying. Juninho still has an excellent touch on the ball and inspired passing ability He was a gamble worth taking. If he had been able to keep injury free, he could well have eclipsed Yorke as the greatest marquee signing yet.
It is too early to write off the marquee system just yet. Next time I will look at the Australian marquee and how they have fared in comparison to their overseas colleagues.
Shane Perris is the resident geek of techwhimsy.com and journeyman wingback for Narrabundah FC.