By JONATHAN COOK
The return to the A-League of prominent Socceroos has been cause for celebration in the past. For the likes of Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton, John Aloisi and Jason Culina, the flags were out - so too the cheque book - and a vast amount of football fans delighted in the news that these 2006 World Cup heroes were preparing to strut their stuff in Australia's domestic competition.
Subsequent individual performances, of course, have altered public opinion one way or another.
So what should we make of Lucas Neill joining Sydney FC?
He may well have signed on the dotted line for the Sky Blues for AU$30,000 less than the AU$100,000 rumoured to have been offered by Melbourne Heart - Lucas told us so in a press conference. But it is still a reasonable amount of coin to stick in the money box for a player past his best.
Over the last four games of the season - plus finals, if Sydney FC get there - we will get a firm indication of just how far the Australia captain has declined since his glory days.
Neill's Sydney FC move will be crucial if he is to lead Australia at the 2014 World Cup.
This Saturday, in particular, will be a big day for a player synonymous with Australia's modern success. Neill will celebrate his 35th birthday by lining up in the heart of the Sydney FC defence against one of the A-League's best teams and one of this season’s most potent attackers.
Central Coast Mariners striker Daniel McBreen, who, at 35, is of the same vintage as Neill but with not nearly the same level of experience, has been a menace to defences this season, scoring 15 goals in the process. The impending muscular tussle with the Mariners' frontman is just the kind of challenge Neill will relish in what will be only his third outing since returning from the United Arab Emirates.
While failure to perform well will not signal a sudden end to Neill's authority, success in shackling McBreen will give credence to the Socceroos skipper's claims for retention in the national team rearguard heading towards the Brazil World Cup in 2014.
|... The A-League will test him, not least because the spotlight will track every touch, tackle and race for the ball.
Among the football fraternity, he will be remembered as one of Australia's most important players, while the infamous Fabio Grosso incident in Kaiserslautern also endeared him to this nation's general sporting public.
After stints in Turkey and the UAE following 15 years in England, the A-League will test him, not least because the spotlight will track every touch, tackle and race for the ball. Neill has never been a man to shirk responsibility and his on-field leadership and sense of organisation could still be a key to the Sky Blues' finals charge.
That said, he looks heavy and seemed particularly laboured in his movement when Perth Glory's 15-year-old debutant Daniel De Silva was gliding across the same nib Stadium turf last Saturday.
What Neill has in abundance, though, is the experience gleaned at Millwall, Blackburn, West Ham and Everton - and during almost 17 years with the Socceroos - to ensure he can still be in the right place at the right time.
If his time is still now, the clock is ticking.
Jonathan Cook was football writer for The West Australian newspaper for 17 years. He covered Glory’s highs and lows for 15 seasons. He also reported on two World Cups, three Olympic Games and two Commonwealth Games.