Desperate Australian clubs are once again queuing up to employ faded British strikers. Matthew Hall explains why

It can no longer be ignored. Relations between Britain and Australia have sunk to a new low and it’s nothing to do with trade wars or our flawed bid to become a republic. It is, however, all to do with current rates of exchange. It goes a little like this: we send you Nick Cave, saucy soap starlets and Harry Kewell. What do we get in return? Hale and Pace, backpackers by the planeload, and Ian bleedin’ Rush.

The National Soccer League thought it had outgrown the days when Kevin Keegan, Paul Mariner and Malcom Macdonald would jet Down Under for a few weeks during the English close season, quaff a few cold lagers and a run around the local parks to top up the retirement kitty. Australian football had become an exporter of talent rather than an importer of pre-loved goods. That was until Sydney Olympic came along.

In December (the local league is played over the summer) Rush pitched up in Sydney to play two games for Olympic. Despite his stay spanning three weekends, Rush was scheduled to appear only at the Sydney club’s home games. Cynics wondered why. Olympic’s strikeforce had been banging in goals from all corners of the ground. It wasn’t as if the team urgently required a 38-year-old wrinkle-faced assassin.

Olympic’s position on the league ladder did have a role to play, however. The end of the current season will usher in (so we have been promised) Australian soccer’s local revolution. The national league, almost totally ignored by mainstream media, is set for a dramatic overhaul. Only two clubs, Sydney team Northern Spirit and Perth Glory on the west coast, attract respectable crowds. Even South Melbourne, Oceania’s plucky representative at the “world club championship”, are shunned by Melbourne’s general public.

The reason is simple. Historically, clubs have been the domain of immigrant communities. Glory and Spirit’s arrival has shown the local governing body that a dollar can be turned if Greek, Croatian, and Italian flags are left at home. This season, the word is, shape up or ship out. Selective criteria, where on-pitch performances count for nothing, have been set. Olympic is a Greek club. They are worried.

Rush was brought to Australia to put bums on Olympic’s empty seats. Despite playing attractive football (they recently did what neither Vasco nor Man Utd could manage in Rio – put six past South Melbourne), Olympic struggle to draw more than 5,000. Rush was thought to be the pop star who would pull in the punters.

Well, that was the plan. Rush scored on his debut, a 2-1 win for Olympic over Marconi Stallions, and proclaimed the standard equivalent to the English First Division when quizzed how he sliced through the defence (yes, locals with a vague knowledge of Wrexham were bewildered too).

The real results were off the pitch, however. Officials were disappointed by the 7,000 turnout for Rush’s first game, pleading live TV coverage in mitigation. Their next home game, against Brisbane, was switched from the usual Sunday to a Saturday night in an effort, apparently, to attract rave-bound youngsters. The crowd dropped to just 5,000. Across town, Northern Spirit, playing appalling football, drew double. Rush was paid close to £50,000 for his two weeks in Sydney, though Olympic claimed they did not put in a penny. Sponsors, corporate tie-ins and Scouse ex-pat dinners covered most of the bill.

Olympic’s latest rent-a-crowd initiative is to attempt a repeat performance, with Eric Cantona in the starring role. If Cantona bites it may prove more successful, since Aussie nippers brought up on a diet of cable TV and Manchester United might actually be able to recall who The King once was.

The same probably can’t be said for Peter Beardsley, who has been snapped up by Melbourne Knights for a couple of games. Beardsley will face even greater indifference than Rush. Knights are bottom of the league. Their crowd, confined to the Croatian community, totals a couple of thousand and the club seems a cert to be chopped from next season’s sexy Super League.

When Beardsley runs out in front of the recently-built Mark Viduka Stand it may well be for a funeral – and not just for his own career. The irony is that had Knights signed Viduka as the guest player, the stands would have been packed. Hale and Pace as half-time entertainment, of course.

From WSC 157 March 2000. What was happening this month

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