Clubs right to play hardball with marquee men

Will they or won’t they? Three marquee men, all performing at a high level, but who will stay with their current club? And should the clubs keep them?

Just seven rounds to go, and we still don’t know whether Shinji Ono, Emile Heskey and Alessandro del Piero will be back for another season.

Sometimes the best decisions are the hardest ones, and the fact Western Sydney Wanderers, Newcastle Jets and Sydney FC are playing hardball with their respective superstars is, to me, sensible business. I’m not convinced the shelf life of a marquee player lasts more than a season, although Archie Thompson has proved to be a notable exception.

The clamour from the fans to re-sign Ono, Heskey and del Piero is predictable, and understandable. You’d run out of superlatives to describe their combined contributions this season. The facts – in terms of goals, assists, and crowds – speak for themselves. The respectful manner in which they have conducted themselves is less measurable, but equally important. All this, of course, simply underlines what the marquee rule is supposed to be about.

The way the marquee slot has been abused over the years merely amplifies the contrast. Make it an accounting procedure, as some clubs have done, and you get what you deserve. Recruit the right players – as the Sky Blues, Wanderers and Jets have done – and you’re a good chance to get the right rewards. Our football public aren’t easily fooled. They know the real deal when they see it.

Del Piero, Heskey and Ono have, unquestionably, been the real deal. But the tough part is what happens next.

It wasn’t that long ago that club owners got together and derided the marquee concept. Too expensive, too risky, too much hard work. Seemingly, we were heading down the path of austerity – justifiable in a narrow economic sense, but a slow death in terms of rejuvenating what, at the time, was an ailing league.

Del Piero’s signing changed everything. Out of nowhere, Nathan Tinkler got the chequebook out to sign Heskey, and the FFA was virtually left with no choice but to react – grabbing Ono at the last moment. Whatever the rationale, it’s worked a treat. Every important metric is up, and the less tangible but no less significant benchmark – the Hyundai A-League’s stature outside the country – has been given a massive boost. Those who were questioning the value of the marquee player have been deafening with their silence ever since.

So the benefits of the marquee slot are, in my view, unquestioned. The discussion point, therefore, is more prosaic. How much, and how long?
Despite del Piero’s fantastic efforts, the mail is Sydney FC are still several hundred thousand dollars out of pocket. Hence talk of lucrative friendly matches against Liverpool and Inter Milan to try and break even on the investment.

Quality doesn’t come cheap. The bean counters at the Jets and the Wanderers will be doing similar sums. Which is why – as the agents of Ono, del Piero and Heskey gather in Australia to talk terms – I maintain the clubs have every right to take their time. In fact I see it as a genuine sign of progress that these administrators are showing the strength to separate the reality from the hype. The short history of the Hyundai A-League is littered with costly mistakes. Bargaining power is crucial in any negotiation, and it’s the clubs – and not the players – who have the upper hand.

Which brings us to the second half of the equation. How long? I have this fantasy that a generous benefactor will appear and underwrite a perpetual marquee fund. Let’s say, $1million dollars for each club to buy one marquee player. The catch? That these players can only be signed for one season.

What you lose, perhaps, by forcing a del Piero out the door, you gain in the excitement, the anticipation, and the suspense of wondering who might replace him. Talk about a 24/7 news cycle. Even better, it would last for 52 weeks a year.

Let’s say we lose ADP, Ono and Heskey. Disaster? Only if you lack ambition, or confidence. Which, hopefully, are emotions which no longer belong to the Hyundai A-League’s mindset.

What about this list of potential replacements. Juan Roman Riquelme, Frank Lampard, Pablo Aimar, Diego Forlan, Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti and Georgios Karagounas. You won’t know if you don’t ask. And what the recruitment of del Piero, Ono and Heskey has shown is that the Hyundai A-League can compete in the marquee market even if it can’t match the cash of the Middle East, China or even the US.

Ultimately, it’s a question of belief. My belief is we have a competition which is good enough, honest enough, and interesting enough to appeal to more players than you might care to imagine. One door closes, another opens. Some things never change.