Perth Glory's great Daniel Sturridge experiment got off to a promising start. But now, faced with an east coast residency with no definitive end date, the Western Australian club is struggling to capitalise on its marquee man.
Knowing the side would soon depart on a months-long, nine-game road trip, 17,198 fans made their way to Glory's home at HBF Park in round one of the 2021-22 A-League Men (ALM) season, eager to get a glimpse of their new star in action against Adelaide United.
Of course, just days out of quarantine and not having played a competitive game of football since March 2020, Sturridge wasn't actually in a position to start. He logged just nine minutes off the bench and touched the ball twice; it was more a teaser trailer than a proper debut. Nonetheless, given the number of selfies he posed for alongside the sidelines at the game, it's fair to say that a fair number of punters went home happy and with a few more likes on their Instagram.
In an age when it feels like a year's worth of events are regularly stuffed into a single week, Perth's 1-1 draw with Adelaide feels like a lifetime ago, not less than two months.
Signing with Glory the previous month (with talk of his impending arrival in WA going from fanciful speculation to official announcement in the space of hours), the former Liverpool and England attacker signing a one-year deal was immediately hailed as one of the biggest in A-Leagues history, possibly second only to Alessandro Del Piero in its scope.
Reflective of the precipitous state of the A-Leagues (and the priorities of its zeitgeist), even greater than the discussions on what the 32-year-old could bring on the field -- sizeable, if he could find a modicum fitness and motivation -- was the dialogue about what he could do off it. As the competition prepared to enter its first year of independence, it was hoped that Sturridge would help to drive mainstream interest and coverage of the league that would eventually bleed over to the rest of the competition via osmosis, and fill \stadiums across the country. Thus far, the former Liverpool man has been a ubiquitous presence in the promotional graphics of his foes even if it was well known that he wouldn't actually feature in the game.
Perth anticipated that he would drive ticket sales and membership, as well as lure sponsors eager to attach their brand to the star's wake and observe him in action via the club's hospitality options. Glory boss Richard Garcia would later concede that Sturridge likely wouldn't have featured at all in round one had the side not been playing in front of a sold-out home crowd eager for a glimpse.
In all, an interesting experiment in the marquee question for the new era. But then omicron hit.
The initial ALM fixture list, constructed with Western Australia's onerous border restrictions in mind, called for Glory to spend a number of weeks on the east coast of Australia -- albeit the players would briefly head home for Christmas -- before returning west in mid-January for an extended run of home games. Adjustments were made along the way, but a light of normality appeared at the end of the tunnel when the WA government declared that Feb. 5 was "opening day".
That was until WA's authorities altered course on their plan to re-open the state's borders, in the face of the highly infectious omicron variant, and retreated back behind their border.
"We were always playing around planning around February 5," Glory CEO Tony Pignata told ESPN.
"Everything was around that, we started selling corporate hospitality for that game, tickets, and we expected, if not another sell-out, another big crowd to want to back the team.
"But that hasn't happened and we've had to now look at the staff and put them on annual leave and reduce hours and all that sort of stuff. It's not great for the mental health of everyone as well. So that's another aspect. It's not great."
The change in plans threw Glory's season -- and the seasons of other Western Australian sporting club --into chaos. The lack of definitive criteria and dates for the club to plan for a return to action at home has left its men's and women's teams staring down the barrel of an extended, possible season-long, stint on the east coast; it has also meant no Sturridge-fueled sellouts in the foreseeable future.
"We really banked on Daniel coming to the club and being able to sell memberships and be able to sell gameday tickets, merchandise etc.," Pignata said.
"So by him not being there. It really has a bit of a hole in the commercial aspect of bringing him in.
"It's hard when you're so many thousands of kilometres away from your home base. We always knew we'd have to play some away games initially until the borders open, then we'd have a run of home games. That was the aim, to basically get the team back and hopefully sell out a few more games because we haven't been at home since last November. But that really has put a damper on things.
"It will be difficult [to recoup Glory's investment in Sturridge without home games]. Pre-COVID we were nearly at 12,000 members. We're now sitting at 5,000 members.
"When you lose six or seven thousand members at say a $250 average price, it's a big hole in the budget which we can't recoup.
"We've got to look at corporate hospitality and all that sort of thing, too.
"But we've been in discussions with the WA government. We've explained to them what the financial impact is for us; not only us, but other sports as well. And they're listening.
"We just basically need some direction for them and, I suppose, assurance that one day the borders will open. We don't know when at the moment that's making it really difficult."
Making matters harder for Glory's ALM side, a positive case in the playing group while in Queensland forced players into mandatory isolation -- as the rules of the Sunshine State surrounding close contacts, at the time, were more stringent than New South Wales and Victoria.
Scrambling, administrators negotiated for those affected to complete their quarantine in Western Australia, ensuring Christmas at home. But the episode, and its resulting effect on the squad's fitness levels, forced another re-jigging of the fixture list to allow Glory to train and raise their conditioning levels before returning east.
"It's been difficult for sure," Sturridge would say on Jan. 21, days after making a 22-minute cameo against Brisbane Roar, his second appearance. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't.
"But it is what it is, you have to deal with it the best you can."
The striker slowly appeared to be building a base that would allow him to contribute to his side in more than a bench role, yet, in a quintessential example of sod's law, COVID struck again: the Englishman was infected again, forcing him, for the third time, into another period of isolation.
In the wake of this revelation, which Sturridge posted on his own social media, a narrative began to form that he could hardly be blamed if he simply packed up and left when he was finally able to reemerge into the world -- if continued attempts to make it work in Australia were simply too difficult to justify.
3rd quarantine in 3 months 😒. Been ducking and dodging it but it got a hold of me dawg so It's R and R time. Ill be back on the pitch again when I'm fully recovered. So annoyed right now but it is what it is. Have a blessed day my people ❤️🙌🏾 pic.twitter.com/5GDEsJYYWH— Daniel Sturridge (@DanielSturridge) January 25, 2022
Pignata, though, discounted that idea.
"In all our discussions he's never said 'I've had enough, I'm leaving,'" Pignata told ESPN.
"He came to play in the A-Leagues; it was a project that we explained to him what we expected and he's committed. He just wants to play football, win games, get into the finals, and play some home games in Perth.
"He's got his partner and child with him so that's helped as well. So he just got to do his seven days quarantine and get back on the track and hopefully be available in a week or two."
But while the most desirable option is for Glory's ALM and ALW sides being able to return to WA and stage games at home, there is a chance that Sturridge and his teammates will get some form of certainty in the near future -- even if it won't help massively with Glory's attempts to realise the commercial benefits of their main man.
"We're looking at some options as well as maybe basing ourselves in a city on the east coast," Pignata said. "I'm in discussions with a few cities that potentially might be able to house us and form a base, and we can play our remaining home games."