Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Interview with Ian Crook

Sydney FC’s assistant coach reveals how Australia’s sporting public will recognise Dwight Yorke – and it’s got nothing to do with the local nightlife.

Former Tottenham and Norwich City midfielder Ian Crook is playing a pivotal role in the development of football in Australia. Earlier this year, Crook was named assistant coach at self-confessed glamour club Sydney FC, pre-season favourites to claim the title in the inaugural A-League season starting late next month.

In addition to 18 years in English football’s top-flight during the 1980s and ‘90s, Crook finished his career in Australia where he spent the last six seasons involved in the defunct National League. Now the man who helped the Canaries beat European heavyweights Bayern Munich in 1993 will aid in steering the club representing Australia’s largest city into a new chapter of soccer down under.

Head coach Pierre Littbarski, a former World Cup winner with Germany, has joined Crook at the helm of newly formed Sydney FC, a club barely nine months old yet already under pressure as the standard-bearers of the brand new national competition.

Not only has Sydney recruited the most talented squad of players, its target market covers something in the region of a quarter of Australian residents. As a consequence, its success is sure to dictate the pattern of national acceptance of the new format in a sport hardly among Australia’s favourites.

Crook is one of the many who believes the development of the A-League offers football its last opportunity to make an impact down under.

“It’s getting to the stage where the league hasn’t got too many more chances,” Crook admits. “It has suffered badly over the last ten years where it’s gradually dipped and dipped. I think it is (a last chance) and this time there are no excuses.

“The administration side of it is good, the sponsors are onboard, the players are coming back, everything’s better. If it fails to find it’s little niche in the market now, then where else is there for it to go?”

In Crook’s mind, the support of specialist broadcaster Fox Sports has been crucial. Parallels can be drawn between English football pre-1992 and Australian today. The last decade of the Premier League confirms that improving the game’s exposure ultimately delivers a better product – something the old NSL never benefited from. As Crook puts it, “It’s now not just about what’s done out on the pitch. There needs to be a little bit of razzmatazz I suppose.”

Furthermore, Australia’s domestic game can finally compete with the Premier League on a level playing field. For fans down under, being able to regularly follow Sky’s comprehensive coverage has merely accentuated the gulf between local and overseas standards. The Premiership has in no small way contributed to the lack of passion 10,000 miles away.

By recruiting from the Premier League, A-League clubs plan to capitalise on a decade of free publicity. Crook’s employers fired a warning shot to their rivals with the prized capture of Dwight Yorke, a veteran of 15 seasons at the summit of English football. Yorke joins as Sydney’s dedicated ‘marquee’ signing, meaning he can be paid outside the AUD$1.5million annual salary cap.

The former Manchester United striker is renowned for being able to generate front- and back-page headlines in equal measure and his signing has raised concerns in some quarters. The profile of the inaugural league season could well plot a similar course to Yorke’s own. Crook, on the other hand, believes Australian football needs a player with the charisma of the Trinidad and Tobago international.

“The great thing about Dwight is he’s such a likeable character,” Crook says. “People will just recognise Dwight because of his smile. It’s really important that the game out here can have not just a good player, but a good character that’s going to be able to promote the game.”

Moreover Yorke’s face fits, not only because he’s one of the Premiership’s all-time leading goalscorers, but because of the ubiquitous nature of the English game. “If that had been (Andriy) Shevchenko, who is at the peak of his game and probably the best striker in the world,” Crook argues. “90% of people out here wouldn’t know him.”

Much has been made of the official name change from soccer to football, with equal doses of arrogance and fear on display in the written media. The round-ball game is moving forwards but is never likely to match sport fans’ desire for traditional ‘footy’ codes like Rugby League and Australian Rules. “If the game’s looking to do that, then I don’t think it will succeed,” Crook says. “The important thing is for the game to be comfortable with the niche it can find.”

Over time, its role should develop to the extent Australia’s most participated sport starts to rank alongside its most watched. But it will take time. “If people are expecting the A-League to blow everything away in the first year, that’s wrong,” says Crook. “You saw from the World Club Championship qualifying games that the standard was better. It will get even better over the next three years. That’s the time you’ll see the real difference.”

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