IT’S taken more than 14 years and a 12,000-mile journey across the world, but Irishman Wayne O’Sullivan has finally hit football’s big time.
At 32, the journeyman footballer is set for a starring role in a once-in-a-lifetime Cup Final tomorrow.
Having toiled for a decade in England’s lower leagues, O’Sullivan will line out with the Central Coast Mariners against Sydney FC in the inaugural A-League Grand Final, the showpiece finale to Australia’s new football franchise, in front of a sellout 41,000 crowd at Aussie Stadium.
“The A-League, everything about it, is well above everyone’s expectations. I was always optimistic but it was a gamble. This season has been unbelievable ... it reminds me of the best times I had in England,” O’Sullivan said.
Things, however, have not always been so rosy for the combative midfielder.
O’Sullivan’s talents as a youngster landed him a contract at Swindon Town back in 1992. From trainee to young professional, his football progression continued at the Robins, where he picked up two Irish U21 caps in 1995, in a team which included Shay Given and Ian Harte.
After five years at Swindon, he was released just after the club’s promotion to the first division in 1997. He was signed by Cardiff for £75,000, where he spent two years, again moving on after the club’s promotion in 1999.
This time it was to Plymouth, where, despite becoming a fans’ favourite for his all-action style in 2001, he was released.
His career at a crossroads. Then came a chance to go to Australia in 2002 with Northern Spirit. Australia wasn’t quite such an attractive proposition back then, with the old Australian league system heading towards its last days.
At one stage “Sully,” as he has since been dubbed by Aussie fans, was playing for nothing.
“I hoped the game in Australia would take off but I didn’t know whether I could afford to wait. As it happened, I stayed, and now I’m obviously glad I did,” he says.
He earned a contract with the Paramatta Power - a Sydney suburban club in 2003 - where his performances gained strong praise, and the eye of Scotsman Lawrie McKenna, who signed him for the Central Coast Mariners.
The Mariners were building up to become part of the new A-League, a concerted, fully professional attempt to capture the Australian imagination through soccer. Hailing from Gosford, about an hour’s drive north of Sydney, Central Coast Mariners is the smallest of the nine-team franchise from across Australia and New Zealand (the top four play-off to see who contests the Grand Final). The league was a gamble, in a country where it is usually relegated below rugby union, league, AFL and cricket.
But on the back of Australia qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the A-League concept flourished into a major league success.
“It’s been so popular. Sydney people have come out in their thousands to watch it,” said O’Sullivan.
A beaming Dwight Yorke was bought as Sydney’s star player - each club is allowed one “marquee” player, allowed to breach the salary cap of Aus $1.5m.
Sydney also recruited German World Cup legend Pierre Littbarski as coach. It’s estimated that Yorke’s and Littbarski’s salaries alone outweigh the combined Mariners’ annual wagebill.
As for Central Coast Mariners, well, there’s isn’t any real marquee player. While Sydney has Yorkie, O’Sullivan himself was sold to the Aussies as part of the dream of developing the world game down under.
“When I won a championship with Swindon [League One title] - I was young, I probably didn’t savour it,” he says. “Now that I’m older I know these sort of things don’t come around too often. I’m going to make sure I enjoy every minute of it.”
Of course, there is Irish consolation even if O’Sullivan’s Mariners fall to Sydney tomorrow. In midfield for Sydney is 24-year-old Terry McFlynn from Magherafelt, County Derry, who once played senior level for Northern Ireland in a Caribbean tour.
Now he too faces the biggest day of his career, as Irish soccer’s journeymen grab the chance to live the Australian dream.