Sunday, March 08, 2009


Prior Experience

In my preview of this year's NSWPL season, I neglected to mention one of the more intriguing additions to the league: Spencer Prior, once a regular in the English Premier League and now a pundit for Fox Sports, is turning out for Manly United in 2009. Last night, I was able to see him in action, and an instructive evening it was.

My memories of Prior were mainly of his time with Derby County in the Premiership, which I followed much more closely at the time. The impression that remained was one of a typical "English defender": strong in the air, combative to a fault, technically average. Now 37 and out of professional football for a little while, how would he adapt to the NSW Premier League? The answer, surprisingly, was very well indeed.

Although he was obviously a little short of pace, and targeted by last night's opponents Marconi in this respect, he was only seriously caught out once, when the quick Ben Vidaic beat him to a through-ball, but Manly's keeper Brad Swancott (who had a tremendous game) came to the rescue.

At other times, Prior's anticipation and positioning were simply exemplary. Manly had a player dismissed (somewhat unfairly) midway through the first half, and were therefore on the back foot for much of the game; I counted nine occasions when a dangerous Marconi attack was blunted by either a last-ditch tackle or a smart clearing header from Prior.

And as for those wasn't only about distance. It was refreshing to see a player who cared for more than just butting the ball as far from their goal as possible; a few of Prior's well-directed headers found unmarked men in midfield, who were able to begin a new Manly move without wasting time.

With the ball at his feet, Prior conformed a little more to the British stereotype, since his first option did mostly appear to be the long ball into the channels ("Good old British coaching, hit the corners every f--king time!" was the comment of a certain former Socceroo coach at a NSWPL match I attended last year). But Prior's were, again, rather more well-directed than the typical hopeful hoof, and he was quick to spot a fullback out of position or a central defender drifting away from his man. On one occasion, a lofted ball from Prior set Manly's Michael Lloyd-Green free on the right for a run to the byline, in approved fashion.

English football is easy to caricature, and there are many who make very good mileage out of doing so. But it's easy to overlook the virtues as well as the vices of the English game, and salutary to be reminded of them occasionally.

On a related matter, another welcome addition to the NSW state league to grace the field last night was Marconi's Iraqi international Ali Abbas, one of the players who made headlines by seeking asylum after the Iraqi Olympic side's loss to the Olyroos in Gosford. Although he seemed to adopt a deferential attitude at times, not getting involved as much as he might have, his class was evident from both his subtle touches and his fine range of passing. He will be good value for Marconi this season.

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