The A-Z of English Abroad a new, and hopefully, regular series for this blog. First up, A and where else to start but the A-League?
Now coming to the end of its eleventh season, English players have featured significantly during the league’s short history. From former internationals like Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler to players who have done Down Under and never returned à la Chris Greenacre (currently Wellington Phoenix’s assistant manager).
Although nearly 30 Englishmen have plied their trade in the A-League, none currently grace Australia’s top-flight.
Here we have some of the highlights of English involvement in Australia’s top league.
The English Knights
The first season of the A-League saw just eight teams compete, compared to the ten which now take part. One side which competed in the inaugural season were the New Zealand Knights, quite possibly the A-League’s most unsuccessful side. The club lasted just two seasons, finishing last in both seasons.
However, in the club’s debut season, English boss John Adshead was in charge and there were high expectations for the side. Adshead was already a hero in New Zealand after he guided the country to their first ever World Cup in 1982.
With the expatriate hero at the helm, the Knights gave appearances to five Englishmen in the 2005-06 season. One of them was Darren Bazeley. The 32-year-old made the move to the other side of the world after making more than 400 appearances in England with Watford, Wolves and Walsall. The right-back played every single minute of the Knights’ inaugural campaign and captained the side for the second half of the season.
Another one of the Englishmen who featured for Adshead’s side that year was Ben Collett. The 21-year-old midfielder was tipped for the top during his youth days at Manchester United. However, a devastating leg break suffered by Collett at the age of 18 whilst playing for United’s reserve side prevented him from reaching his potential at Old Trafford and almost three years after his injury, Collett left United to join the Knights. He made 18 appearances before moving to lower-league Dutch side AGOVV Apeldoorn. In 2007, he was forced to retire through injury and a year later, was awarded a sum of over £4 million as compensation after taking legal action against Gary Smith and Middlesbrough, the player and the club involved in the injury.
Highlights from the 2-2 draw between New Zealand Knights and Sydney FC in December 2005, a rare point for the Knights.
The other three were former Grimsby Town defender Ronnie Bull, who lasted just seven games, Simon Yeo, who scored four goals before returning home and Neil Emblen, who remains in New Zealand to this day and managed the country’s side in the 2012 Olympic Games.
Despite Adshead’s stewardship and experienced professionals from England, the Knights managed just one win all season, finishing rock bottom with six points.
The following season saw Knights finish last again and the club was disbanded.
The ex-international striker swansong
Australia might not have the riches to compete with the US or China but it certainly has the lifestyle and the A-League has been able to tempt several England players to its shores.
The first to arrive was Brian Deane. The scorer of the first ever Premier League goal was coming to the end of a more than respectable career in his homeland and had picked up three England caps. At the age of 37, Deane lasted just seven games with Perth Glory before returning to Sheffield United for a third spell with the Blades. He did score one goal for Perth however, in a 2-1 win over Melbourne Victory in October 2005.
Next, there was Robbie Fowler. One of the Premier League’s greatest ever goal scorers, Fowler was a massive coup for the league when he signed for the now defunct North Queensland Fury in 2009. Despite his advancing years, Fowler proved a hit Down Under. During both of his years in the A-League (he spent the 2010-11 with Perth Glory) he finished as his club’s top scorer and also fired a hat-trick for Perth.
And then there was Emile Heskey. The experienced former England striker spent two seasons with Newcastle Jets between 2012 and 2014 to varying degrees of success. After an explosive start to his time with the Jets, scoring five goals in six games, the ex-Liverpool forward managed just five more in his next 36 matches. The Jets also finished outside the play-offs during both of Heskey’s seasons at the club but Fox Sports did offer viewers a ‘Heskey Cam’ experience for one match during his time in Australia.
One of the highlights of Heskey’s time Down Under, a speculative bicycle kick goal against Melbourne Victory
Heskey was actually brought in to replace another former England international in the shape of Francis Jeffers. The one-cap wonder had two spells with the Jets between 2010 and 2012, scoring two goals in 26 games. He then headed off to Malta to play a couple of games for Floriana before returning to England.
There was also Michael Bridges. Although technically not a full England international, he picked up 11 caps for Under-21s, Bridges featured in the A-League for a combined total of six seasons. The man who Leeds United paid £5 million for back in 1999, initially joined Sydney FC on loan in 2007 before returning to Australia in 2009 to spend five seasons with Newcastle Jets. In total he made 72 A-League appearances, scoring 13 goals.
Only one Englishman has won the A-League Grand Final and that is James Robinson. A former Crewe Alexandra midfielder, Robinson had a short stint in Iceland before moving to Australia. After initially playing below the top division with Richmond SC, he went on to join A-League club Melbourne Victory in 2006.
Robinson scored just one goal in his seven appearances with the Victory but it was one that went down in folklore. Robinson scored in the 93rd minute to secure a 2-1 aggregate win over Adelaide United and see Victory through to the 2007 Grand Final.
James Robinson’s injury time winner against Adelaide United in 2007.
Despite the Victory beating Adelaide in the semi-finals, the two clubs would go on to meet each other in the Grand Final due to play-off system used in Australia at the time. Victory thrashed Adelaide 6-0 to win their first ever A-League title, with Robinson playing the last thirty minutes. It would be Robinson’s last appearance for the Victory as he was released at the end of the season but he then went on to play for fellow A-League sides Perth Glory and North Queensland Fury.