Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Marquee Mark for Jets

Mark Milligan is not a bad player at all. As Olyroos captain he was integral to Australia's Olympics qualification, and he was outstanding in his first year at Sydney FC. He has great talent at an A-League level, no doubt. But is he a 'marquee' player? In his own mind, he might well be. His playing career seems to have stalled, though: after leaving Sydney FC he jetted off to Europe to try his luck, trialled with several clubs, and failed to win a contract. He also played (poorly) in the ill-fated Asian Cup and Olympics tournaments, finally returning to Australia with his tail between his legs to take a playing contract with Newcastle Jets.

Milligan's behaviour has not exactly been marquee-worthy, either, with the young defender at times missing training sessions for the Olyroos and Sydney, and eventually going AWOL from his club.

So, the news that Milligan has signed on as Newcastle's marquee player for the rest of the season, filling the position vacated by Ecuadorian striker Edmundo Zura, comes as a little bit of a surprise. Surely a young guy who has played a few games for the Socceroos, admittedly a decent player but apparently with somewhat of an attitude problem, is not quite what the FFA had in mind when they designed the 'marquee' concept. A marquee player is supposed to be well known, marketable, and charismatic. Like Dwight Yorke or Juninho, he's supposed to be the sort of player whose exceptional skill and presence put 'bums on seats', as they say in the classics.

Mark Milligan is not this person. Neither is Jade North, who signed a contract to be North Queensland's inaugural marquee but has since accepted another offer to play in Korea. You can't really blame the clubs for making these sorts of moves, though - it is an opportunity to exempt one good player from the salary cap and therefore keep them in the side. In Newcastle's case, it is a way to keep Milligan on this season after the expiry of his seven-game guest stint. In North Queensland's case, Jade North was seen as an important element to the club's attempt to engage Indigenous people in the region.

The problem is that there is a discrepancy between the FFA's archetypical conception of a marquee player, and the reality, which sees marquee status applied to fringe Socceroos, overweight has-beens (yes, Jardel, I'm talking about you), and South Americans signed from DVDs. And it is the FFA that make the final call.

There are a few ways that this could be fixed. The first option is for the FFA to get far more stringent about who is afforded marquee status. This would mean that only top-quality, highly marketable players would make the cut. The problem with this is that some of the more successful of the league's marquee players (like Archie Thompson or Shengqing Qu) would not qualify, and that there would still be failures along the lines of John Aloisi at Sydney.

Another way forward would be to change the concept to one of simply a 'cap-exempt player' - someone who, for whatever reason and at the discretion of the club, is paid outside the salary cap. This would give clubs the freedom to carve out their own approach, and decide whether their money is better spent on an expensive, flashy Juninho or a reliable, relatively cheap North or Milligan. I like this approach because it puts the onus on the clubs, rather than the federation, to get things right - I've written before about the need for the FFA to decentralise and divest some of their powers to individual clubs.

Other options could involve adding a second marquee spot, abandoning the marquee concept altogether and significantly increasing the salary cap, or scrapping the salary cap and allowing clubs free reign over their spending. There are definitely good arguments for each, but in a newly-formed league with public interest in each club fluctuating so much relative to results I think it's essential that some sort of mechanism remains to keep clubs on a reasonably even keel.

Regardless of how it's done, though, I do think that clubs need to be a bit more adventurous when recruiting marquees. We go to the football to see players that inspire, that have a bit of panache and flair, not slightly-above-average defenders with a good positional sense (of course these players can be just as important, but you know what I mean). Anyway, good luck to Milligan at Newcastle - even though the club is clearly taking the piss with regards to the idea of a 'marquee' player, the odds are good that he'll be the best one they've ever had.

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