Football: Bolt takes back seat at Maitland’s field of dreams

FULL VOICE: Usain Bolt offers encouragement to his teammates during the Mariners' trial against the Jets at Maitland Sportsground. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
FULL VOICE: Usain Bolt offers encouragement to his teammates during the Mariners' trial against the Jets at Maitland Sportsground. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Maitland Sports Ground is not the Birds Nest in Beijing, nor is it the QE2 Stadium in London – the venues for Usain Bolt’s record-breaking feats on the track.

The old girl, situated at Horseshoe Bend in the historic part of town, once was the home to local rugby league greats Terry Pannowitz, Don "Bandy" Adams and Merv Wright.

They’d come from miles to watch the Pumpkin Pickers take on the might of Western Suburbs lock Johnny Raper and Eddie Lumsden (Kurri Kurri).

Down the road at St Peter’s, the Johns brothers, Andrew and Matthew, honed their skills in the school yard.

Maitland Sports Ground has had a spruce up of late in the form of an $11m redevelopment.

They even kicked the Pickers off the ground during the week to preserve the surface. It was front page news in the local Maitland Mercury newspaper.

Usain Bolt is a big deal. Even if he is just sitting in a club tracksuit on the bench watching his future teammates do battle with fierce rivals the Newcastle Jets.

Bolt’s view from the dugout was not about him making a substitute appearance. Rather, it was to give the sprint king a chance to concentrate on the game away from zealous autograph-hunters and well-wishers.

Indeed, the 32-year-old Jamaican turned heads when he filed through the front gates with Mariners players, who next to the towering former sprinter are unrecognisable.

Bolt’s work was already done for the day. He did a session with the Mariners rehab group at their Tuggerah training base that morning.

From the get-go, the world’s fastest man has insisted that he be treated like everyone at the club – except for the little detail that his reported $3 million price tag would make him the highest paid rookie in Australia football history.

Hence, the reason he made the 90-minute trip up the freeway to watch a friendly. Just as he did a week ago when the Mariners played Sydney Olympic, after which he joined the the NPL squad for a dressing-sheds selfie.

"For someone with such a high profile, he is extremely down to earth," said Mariners midfielder Andrew Hoole, who is sidelined with a foot injury. "He is focused and working hard."

Bolt’s first opportunity to show what he can do on the pitch arrives in the form of a friendly against a Central Coast select side in Gosford next weekend, which will be broadcast live by Fox Sports.

"It has been hectic from a media perspective, obviously," Mulvey said of his high-profile triallist.

"He doesn't have football fitness which is natural. We have not brought him in and said you have to do this and do that by this time. 

"We will give him a long stretch of time. We have some very good developmental coach's who will help him with his game. We will do that behind closed doors. 

"Eventually he will play a game. He might play next Friday, just 10 or 15 minutes. It is long-term rather than short-term."

Yesterday, he was content to sit in the dugout exchanging words with coach Mike Mulvey. He pointed, applauded, waved, rose to his feet and shared opinions with others on the bench.

 A curling free kick from Mariners defender Jack Clisby bamboozled Jets youth team keeper Noah James and dipped under the bar to give the Mariners the lead in the 10th minute - bringing a smile from Bolt.

Soon the Jets’ bona fide marquee Ronny Vargas took control, twisting and turning, leaving defenders in knots and putting players into space.

Jason Hoffman put the Jets on level term in the 40th minute with a tap-in at the back post after great lead-up work from Nick Cowburn down the right.

A lightning bolt split the sky to the east, bringing "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd of about 5000. The man himself, didn’t flinch.

You sense, his excitement is yet to come.