Comeback may be a bridge too far

MICHAEL Bridges has fought back from adversity so many times that by now it must be second nature to roll with the punches.

After bursting on the scene as a teenager with his home-town club, Sunderland, the lanky striker was regarded as one of the brightest young prospects in the English game, only for injuries to ruin what should have been the best years of his career.

Each time he dusted himself off and resumed, often in a new locale, his love for the game apparently undiminished. A lesser man might have conceded it was just not meant to be.

Now Bridges finds himself at what could well prove to be his last problematic juncture as a professional footballer.

This time his obstacle is not injury but lack of opportunity.

When Jets coach Gary van Egmond announced his 17-man touring party for the road trip to Melbourne, there was news for Bridges that has become all too familiar - his services were not required.

This season the 34-year-old has played only 45 minutes off the bench in five games, in stints of 12, seven, five, eight and 13 minutes. On one occasion he sat on the bench for the whole game as an unused sub.

For an impatient rookie, such treatment would be disappointing. For a veteran hoping - but fast running out of time - to leave a lasting impression in his twilight years, it must be heart-breaking. He no doubt believes he still has something to offer, and plenty of good judges feel the same.

Before a ball was kicked in this campaign, he said there were still a few miles left in his often-repaired pins.

"I've always been fit as a fiddle, but I'm in as good a shape as I ever have been," he said at the time. "When I came back from England for pre-season I went straight into the Cooper Test [to measure endurance] and this 34-year-old beat all the young boys."

Even in his cameo stints, in games that have usually been won or lost before he sets foot on the pitch, his creativity and class have been obvious.

But it seems whatever role van Egmond had planned for Bridges was scrapped after the Jets signed Emile Heskey, a former England junior teammate.

Van Egmond clearly likes to surround Heskey with the likes of Ryan Griffiths, James Brown, Adam Taggart, James Virgili and Craig Goodwin.

The question of whether Heskey and Bridges could operate effectively in tandem is hard to answer, simply because they have hardly been sighted together.

Only twice have they been on the same pitch in Newcastle's colours: eight minutes against Wellington in round seven, and 13 minutes against Central Coast in round 10. Both times the Jets were 2-0 down and chasing the game.

Unless van Egmond is saving Bridges for the business end of the season, it would appear his best chance of meaningful playing time is if Heskey is injured, or rested.

This is not to stay that the coach is wasting a potentially valuable resource.

Van Egmond wants his team to play a certain way and perhaps one veteran up front is all he can tolerate.

Right or wrong, he deserves respect for reminding us yet again that he pays little heed to reputations when picking his team. It is not a popularity contest.

By the same token, Bridges has handled this situation like the senior professional he is.

While he tweeted this week that he was "gutted" about his non-selection and heading out to the golf course to "take some frustration out on the balls", Bridges has never once shown signs of spitting the dummy.

Unlike Robbie Fowler, who once petulantly refused to play for North Queensland after being named on the bench, Bridges obviously subscribes to the mantra that no individual is bigger than the team.

And unlike Kasey Wehrman, ostracised last season for indiscreet comments about van Egmond's tactics, Bridges has been wise enough not to challenge the boss's authority.

What Bridges no doubt desires more than anything is a chance to contribute to the team. A decent chance to show whether he's still got it.

He came out of a brief retirement 18 months ago because he felt he had unfinished business.

It would be a shame if that was still the case when the full-time whistle eventually blows.

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