On the day of his 32nd birthday, Usain Bolt started without frills. There were no shots and no sprints for the eight-time Olympic champion during his first training session for the Central Coast Mariners, as he bids to realise his dream of becoming a professional footballer. He was here, beneath a hot, perfectly cloudless sky, passing in a circle, working on his give-and-go and lying on the ground performing a stretch his coach called “the rocking egg” – all while the cameras clicked and the footage was beamed live across Australia.
The club have been clear that there would be no special treatment for the Jamaican yet a unique welcome mat had been laid out for him in Gosford – the shape of a lightning strike was carved in the centre circle, faintly, like how the imprints of old ruins can appear suddenly in the heat. During the session, passing truckers could be heard yelling “Usain!”, while afterwards his new teammates joked around with him, like he had been a member of the squad for years.
“The glare was on him,” said Mariners coach Mike Mulvey. And while it was a far cry from the pressure of those breath-holding moments before the starter’s gun fires in an Olympic 100m final, the media assembled here from around the world ramped things up significantly. Up in the grandstand, the local FM radio DJ whispered anxiously on the phone to his producer: “There’s ESPN, there’s Getty, there’s Fox Sports, then there’s us.”
Tuesday’s debut session was closed to the public, but next door at the Gosford City Lawns Bowls Club, Fiona Ford, stopped to watch the media roll in. “I’ve never followed soccer until the grandson started playing,” she said. “But I like it. And as soon as we knew he was coming, my partner and I said, ‘Right, we’ll go. We’ll go and watch a game.’”
Bolt, who gives off the impression that he has searched the world for this opportunity, arrived in Australia to a media scrum at the airport on Saturday ahead of what the club have described as an “indefinite training period” and what has the potential to be a first professional contract.
It won’t be easy. The perennial track-and-field champion has trialled unsuccessfully with three clubs around the world in the past year – Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund, Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa and Norwegian side Strømsgodset, for whom he made a 20-minute cameo against an Under-19s team. By all accounts, he did not do very well.
A sizeable media contingent turned out for Bolt’s first training session at Central Coast Stadium. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/EPA
For the Mariners though, the media scrum meant it may already be job done. Mulvey told reporters Bolt had “already brought the biggest throng of media to this area, [putting] the spotlight on the Central Coast.” He said the club had become complacent to underperformance and “needed to be innovative, and creative.”
“And how much more innovative and creative can you get than bringing Usain Bolt in to trial?” he declared. “We don’t have to make a decision tomorrow or today. If it takes 12 months, I’m happy for him to be here.”
Back on the pitch of Central Coast Stadium, where the 20,000-seat capacity makes it the second-smallest in the A-League, all eyes were on the track and field star. His first input was a give-and-go: a short pass to a teammate, a touch, then a long pass, drilled down the line. A left-footer, Bolt performed well enough, a spin on that old cliche: good touch for the fastest man in the world.
In the rondo (piggy in the middle) the ball slipped under his studs. He was too slow. His teammates clapped him on the back. When they broke for a seven-a-side game, Bolt didn’t play. He stretched behind the goal, in deep conversation with a coach and new signing Kalifa Cissé.
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The pressure was immense for what was a routine trot around the park. Journalists waiting for a story muttered among themselves, talking about how he didn’t move forward to the ball when receiving, was static, “doesn’t anticipate”.
He told the media afterwards fitness was his main priority, and after that he would focus on the football. “I’m entirely out of my comfort zone but that’s why I am here,” he said. “It is just like track and field. The first day of training is always the roughest one. But it felt OK. I came to work and I’m ready to work. I’m very cool under pressure. I have an ability to understand very quickly and learn quickly, and I think I see the game very well.
Bolt is hoping to secure a contract to play in the A-League in the upcoming 2018-19 season. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/EPA
“I’m just going to put in the work,” he added. “I have to get fit. I’m just here to push myself … learn and get better. As I told the coach from the start, I’m here with a blank slate.”
Bolt, a frequent visitor to Australia, revealed he had picked the A-League over offers from second-tier teams across Europe. “We got offers from teams in Spain, France, places like that. For me it would have been harder, I would have to learn a new language. Australia is somewhere I enjoy coming to. I’ve come to Australia a lot.”
Outside the stadium, Michelle and Stuart Bolte-Gall were walking their dog, and trying to peek through the fencing. Football fans themselves, their grandchildren play for the junior Mariners, and they couldn’t be happier with Bolt’s appearance. “It’s very good for Gosford, we think it’s great,” said Stuart. “I was a Bolte,” said Michelle, “My surname was Bolte. My first husband was Bolte. Now I’m Bolte-Gall.”
Like many residents, they hold out hope of meeting the Jamaican superstar on the sedate streets of Gosford. Bolt said he was approachable and that residents should come and say hello. “I haven’t been out yet really, just trying to find a place to live. It’s quiet, and I’m that type of person. It should suit me well.”
Back at the bowls club, Fiona Ford was just as supportive, but with her game in full flow, was too busy to try and sneak in. “We’ve got a game on,” she said. “But he can peek over the top and give us a wave”.
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