Redemption song

Mark Bosnich is back in the headlines – and for all the right reasons so far, as Matthew Hall reports

“They say you don’t truly miss something, or know how much it meant to you, until it’s gone or taken away from you… and I have missed it.” And with that, Mark Bosnich, aged 36, returned to professional football, if signing a seven-week contract with Australian A-League club Central Coast Mariners can be considered anything of a return.

Of course, considering all that the former Manchester United, Aston Villa and Chelsea goalkeeper has experienced since he last pulled on shirt and gloves for money, a run of games in his homeland’s ­fast‑developing professional league is an apt place for some sort of redemption. Bosnich’s previous professional game, with Chelsea, was in 2002. For much of the past six years, he has seemed lost in a blizzard of cocaine, tabloid headlines, lingerie-model liaisons, and ill-conceived comeback attempts that involved reality-TV cameras. He also failed to return calls – from friends, family and agents.

Then slowly, ever so slowly, Australian football began to reclaim its long-lost son. Last November, in the lead-up to a friendly match in London between Australia and Nigeria, he accepted an invitation to dinner from Football Federation Australia officials. The former Socceroos goalkeeper was, they reported, healthy and in a positive frame of mind. The next step was an appearance as a TV pundit for the early-morning Australian broadcast of the Nigeria game.

Last May, Bosnich returned to his hometown of Sydney as FFA hosted this year’s FIFA Congress. Once one of the most recognisable Australian players, he was now deployed as an unofficial “ambassador” as delegates descended on the city. He also made time to be reconciled with family members he had not seen in years. “What’s happened in the past five years has happened,” Bosnich said, as he signed his deal with the ­Mariners. “I take my ­responsibility for that as well. I’m just happy now to be back and if people want to laud me as an ambassador that’s an added bonus.”

Bosnich’s return to club football, no matter how briefly it lasts, wasn’t guaranteed, even after playing two trial matches for Central Coast in a pre-season cup and even after saving a penalty in one game. The Mariners, as they’re known, are located two hours north of Sydney and are far from being the league’s glamour side. They are, however, known as a community club whose reach extends so deeply into grassroots and local football that some fans would rather travel up the freeway from Sydney’s northern suburbs than support what should be their nominal home team.

Central Coast lost last season’s Grand Final, the play-off to decide the top team, to local rivals Newcastle Jets, but the game is more remembered for the incident in the final minutes when Mariners goalkeeper Danny Vukovic was sent off for striking the referee. Vukovic’s consequent ban allowed Bosnich his second coming.

It’s a chance Bosnich appears to be making the most of, if comments by Central Coast’s chairman truly reflect the keeper’s attitude. “He’s been an inspiration to our players and has brought a new level of self-belief and confidence into our current playing squad,” Lyall Gorman said. “Not just for our goalkeepers, but across the board, he’s made a tremendous impact and also in the community.”

The A-League kicked off its fourth season in August and Bosnich has not been the only headliner. Growing pains are beginning to fade and the eight-team league will expand next season, with two new clubs based in the fast-growing state of Queensland – Townsville and Gold Coast. They will join Sydney, Melbourne Victory, the Mariners, the Jets, Brisbane-based Queensland Roar, Ade-laide United, Perth Glory and Wellington Phoenix, a team that are not only from  New Zealand but fall under the Oceania Football Confederation (rather than the Asian Confederation, of which Australia are now members).

The league has so far fulfilled its brief to lure older players home from Europe (Craig Moore, Tony Popovic and John Aloisi, who all played at the 2006 World Cup, have returned) and stem the talent drain of younger players to second-tier European leagues. The competition has also learned – quickly – that it should not be a retirement home for ageing European stars, with the most successful foreign imports now being previously unknown South and Central Americans.

Bosnich, however, is the league’s feel-good story. “It’s time for me to put something back, not only to football, but to the community,” he said on his return. “In terms of long-term playing? My parents asked me that, too. I am just taking it step by step – again it’s a little tick in the box.” A humble, modest Mark Bosnich? It is a leap year, after all.

From WSC 260 October 2008