BLUETONGUE Stadium is perched on the north shore of the picturesque Brisbane Water. When he isn’t playing there for Central Coast Mariners, John Sutton is at the beach with his family or off travelling the Continent in the Asian Champions League.
It sounds like an ideal way of life, a perception Sutton doesn’t do much to dispel. He scored the first goal of his Australian loan spell in New Zealand on Sunday as CC Mariners finished top of the Hyundai A-League with a 2-1 win at Wellington Phoenix. The change has revitalised him, yet the yearning to prove himself back in the northern hemisphere is unrelenting.
Sutton’s loan agreement expires on May 31 and he will report to Riccarton in June with a burning desire to establish himself at Hearts. Sunshine, temperatures nearing 30C and more travelling than an airline pilot won’t persuade him to even contemplate staying Down Under. He has unfinished business in Edinburgh, where his contract runs until June 2014.
“That was the understanding when I left Hearts, that I would come back and try to make an impression,” the striker told the Evening News. “I have a really big desire to do well for them. I don’t want to go into the reasons why this move came about but I looked at it as an opportunity to do well out here.
“I certainly miss being in Edinburgh and it’s good to see the team doing well, especially in the Scottish Cup. I’ve still got two years left on my contract and in that time I want to make a really good impression. It’s very difficult to compare the styles of football and the fans in Scotland and Australia. Certainly, there is part of me that misses playing in Scotland and playing for Hearts.”
Persuading Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager, that he is capable of being a regular at Tynecastle could be the hard part. That’s assuming the Portuguese coach is not replaced when his own contract expires at the end of the season. Sutton is confident in his ability either way. Game time was frustratingly sporadic for the Englishman after Sergio replaced Jim Jefferies last August, a situation which led to the loan deal with CC Mariners. Since then, Craig Beattie has arrived in his place and instantly endeared himself to Hearts supporters.
Sutton is enjoying his own success in Australia and openly declares his objectives before he returns to Hearts.
“My aim is to win the Grand Final (League title decider) with Central Coast and help them qualify for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League. One of the attractions of coming to Australia was the chance to win something. You can have a long career and never get the chance to lift silverware. We have a fair chance of winning the Grand Final.
“I’m looking on a little bit enviously at how well the Hearts boys are doing in the cup. They’ve got a really big game coming up in the semi-final against Celtic. Hopefully, the boys can win the Scottish Cup and I can come back for pre-season with some silverware of my own from Australia.”
And doubtless a few tales to tell as well. Many SPL players complain about a three-hour coach journey to Inverness but in Australia that would be akin to driving round the corner. Long-haul flights are the norm for A-League clubs, even more so those involved in Asia’s Champions League.
“I travelled with the team to China earlier this month in the hope of making the game against Tianjin but I never played because of a dead leg,” said Sutton. “When you think of the Champions League in Europe you think of a lot of travelling, but over here the travelling is on a whole other level. Tianjin is south of Beijing and it took us about 20 hours to get there.
“We should just have entered the Europa League because I could have got back to Edinburgh in that time. Believe it or not, that’s us in a regional section in the Champions League here. The travelling can be even longer if we get to the knockout stage because you can be playing teams from Dubai and Qatar. It’s such a big tournament and, in terms of seeing different bits of the world, it’s been great.”
There is more to come. CC Mariners are scheduled to play in Seongnam, South Korea, next month and Nagoya, Japan, in May as they aim for a spot in the competition’s knockout phase. That means another 20,000 miles of travelling for Sutton before his loan expires, not counting domestic matches of course.
Winning the A-League secured the Gosford club’s place in the play-offs for the Grand Final, which begin on Saturday when Sutton and his colleagues travel 550 miles north to play Brisbane Roar. The season’s showpiece match takes place on April 22.
“It’s certainly been a totally different experience over here,” he laughed. “When I arrived we were a few points clear but the team in second place have put in a really strong finish to the season. We needed to win our last game on Sunday which means that, technically, we’ve won the league. But the system here is a bit different because there are play-offs now for the Grand Final. Whoever wins the Grand Final are the ultimate champions.
“It took me a bit of time to adjust to the change in lifestyle. There was jet-lag and then some niggling injuries. I’ve never really had many injuries but the hard ground over here led to me being tight in places and picking up a couple of knocks.
“My wife and kids are over with me and they’re really liking it. Central Coast have been quite successful in the past. They are one of the smaller teams out here in terms of where they’re situated, just north of Sydney. Gosford is a beautiful area. We’re right next to the beach and it’s a lovely lifestyle. All the other teams are based in the big Australian cities. Plus you’ve got Wellington Phoenix in New Zealand, where we’ve just come back from.
“The highlight so far was Sunday, getting the league wrapped up. Now I’m looking forward to the play-offs.
“Those games coming up will be massive and we’re expecting good crowds. The play-offs might not be the fairest way to do it but I know there was some talk of ending the Scottish season that way. There is plenty of excitement in them.” The exhilaration will take over if CC Mariners end the season triumphantly. Sutton will then board a flight back to Europe knowing that more fulfilment awaits if he can cement his place at Hearts.