By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Usain Bolt’s Central Coast Mariners debut will pit him against a grab bag of office workers, students and factory hands in an amateur side that have no intention of giving the Olympic sprint champion an easy ride, their captain Matt Page has said.
The Jamaican’s hopes of winning a professional contract in the Australian top flight will be tested on Friday when the Mariners play an amateur select side at their sleepy base in Gosford, north of Sydney.
The pre-season match will be televised live by a local broadcaster and could draw over 12,000 paying fans to the Mariners’ home stadium, where they can expect fireworks, a DJ and at least a cameo appearance from the athletics superstar.
Once the entertainment makes way for the sport, Bolt can expect to face a set of willing opponents bent on making their own impression in front of a prime-time audience.
“Everyone’s buzzing. Most of the guys wouldn’t have played in front of a big crowd like this before, myself included,” 34-year-old skipper Page, a former groundsman at the local soccer association, told Reuters by telephone.
“Obviously playing against the big fellow, you know, it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
“If he wants to make it at this level, no one’s going to take it easy on him. I don’t envisage any of the boys pulling out (of a tackle). But I don’t think anyone will be dirty, either. It’ll be a really good natured game.”
Eight-times Olympic gold medallist Bolt had his first training with the A-league team only a week ago and said he expected to feel “nerves” at the trial match.
He has admitted he lacks fitness and is still struggling with the “stop and go” nature of football.
With speed his obvious asset, the 32-year-old has trained as a left winger and will hope to get on the pitch for the last 15-20 minutes.
Marking the speedster could be a challenge but the amateurs’ coach Chris Ackerley said he had the perfect man for the job at right back — a “thick-set lad” by the name of Bryce Fielder from local champions Killarney District FC.
“I think Usain Bolt will know he’s been in a game, especially if he gets a few tackles in on him because Bryce has got tree-trunk thighs,” said Ackerley, whose father Stan captained Australia’s national Socceroos side in the 1960s.
Bolt may also meet a fellow Caribbean in 45-year-old forward Keith Gumbs, who played over 100 times for the tiny island nation of St. Kitts & Nevis.
Bolt’s open-ended trial with the Mariners has been dismissed as a publicity stunt by sceptics but there were few detractors in Ackerley’s squad.
“He’s greatness personified,” said Page. “He’s (Floyd) Mayweather, Michael Jordan, (Muhammad) Ali.
“It’s similar to Michael Jordan with the baseball. If anyone deserves an opportunity it’s someone that knows what it takes to get to the very top of their field.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)