With Alex Wilkinson signing a deal with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in Korea and joining the growing brigade of Aussie players moving to Asia, Central Coast Mariners have been left short of a long-term servant and a great club captain.
The reason Wilko took the deal? Money, plain and simple. This Asian opportunity offers him the chance to set himself up for life, in a career that is shorter than most and no one can begrudge him that - but how the Mariners adjust to life without him on the pitch remains to be seen.
Mariners boss Graham Arnold admitted he was disappointed to lose his captain, but said the opportunity for Wilkinson to set himself up financially is one the player couldn’t refuse.
“Alex has been a great servant for this club for a very long time and we are disappointed to see him go, but at the moment Australian clubs simply cannot compete with the money on offer in other Asian leagues,” Arnold said.
That statement alone explains the talent drain to Asia. At the moment it’s a one-way ticket; scribble a number on a piece of paper, make your offer and your player will take off to chase the riches on offer in places like Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea or the UAE.
Sure, some players back up the truck; Mark Milligan and Mile Sterjovski are two recent examples of quality Australian talent who have come back the other way, but the lack of Asian-born players willing to come to these shores is concerning.
There are just three Asian players in the Hyundai A-League at this stage: Sydney FC’s Ali Abbas and Hirofumi Moriyasu, and recent Brisbane Roar signing Do Dong-Hyun. It’s hardly a positive representation of our international confederation members but it’s perhaps representative of the standing of our own competition.
In dollar terms, A-League clubs simply cannot complete with the wages most Asian clubs offer, and by moving continents, the players get to prove themselves on a different level for the international set-up, as well as the cultural experience.
But at this stage, it’s a lose/lose situation for the A-League; players are leaving and we’re not getting much in return. It seems a waste of such a rich talent base that could aid the A-League’s technical development.
But how can we compete? There is all kinds of money involved in team ownership in Asia; car production companies own teams, sheiks own teams, oil barons own teams, as do leaders of business.
Surely there are players, even in the lower leagues, that could be tempted by a new competition and different culture. Imports are often keen to say they’re not here for the lifestyle – but let’s be honest, it’s one of our biggest selling points, so let’s use it.
The player drain of course manifests itself in another way and coaches and fans are left asking how do we adequately replace this talent?
For the second time in two seasons the Mariners have now been directly affected.
The loss of Matt Simon and Rostyn Griffiths last year was almost catastrophic, as the goals dried up and the supposed, John Sutton, was a massive failure. Granted, they still won the premiership but the Mariners were a different side once Simon set sail for Korea and not for the better.
The signature of Mile Sterjovski will go some way to replacing Simon, and Arnold might even have a readymade Wilko replacement in youngster Zac Anderson, signed from the defunct Gold Coast United.
With their captain gone and their highly rated goalkeeper in the sights on some massive European teams, Anderson’s ability to develop into a first-team defender becomes one of the most important off-season aims for Arnold.
The burly defender was impressive alongside Michael Thwaite at Gold Coast, but stepping into the shoes of the club’s long-serving captain would be a big ask for anyone.
The Mariners will move on to their next generation but to keep losing your best players must be endlessly frustrating, and because of their small budget this player drain will hurt them more than other, more financially successful clubs.
But how do any of our teams bring Asian talent here? If you have the answer I’d love to know. We don’t have the money and I'm yet to see an Asian player really star over here.
Do we need someone to take a risk or will we always be reliant on the odd South American flair and curious European?