Having turned their fortunes around in recent seasons, the Mariners will be hoping to keep their good times at Gosford going despite losing some assets during the offseason.
The 2021-22 A-League Men season was an impressive campaign for the Mariners, and while they once again had a quick finals exit, there were plenty of positives for Nick Montgomery’s men to take out of the year.
Taking over the reins from Alen Stajcic, the jury was out on whether Montgomery could reproduce the same magic as his predecessor did in the 2020-21 season. And though the Mariners started slow out of the blocks – winning just three of their opening 12 games of the season and losing seven – they eventually clicked into gear.
After a run of three straight defeats in February, the Mariners lost just one game in the final three months of the home and away season. Eventually they’d be overrun in the finals by an in-form Adelaide United.
A major factor in their turnaround was the arrival of Jason Cummings, who arrived in January and scored 11 goals in just 22 appearances. With Alou Kuol departing to Germany and Matt Simon out injured, the 27-year-old gave the side some much needed firepower.
The campaign also saw the emergence of some young guns. Kye Rowles, Lewis Miller, Garang Kuol all earned moves to Europe, while Dan Hall, Jacob Farrell and Harrison Steele were also impressive.
With former keeper Mark Birighitti a key factor in Central Coast’s turnaround with his experience on-field leadership and consistency between the sticks, a big hole was left when he parted ways with the club to join Dundee United during the off-season.
The Mariners looked to have addressed this by bringing in Danny Vukovic, with the 37-year-old being an ideal like-for-like replacement, going back to the club where is professional career began.
Having spent five years with the Mariners between 2005 and 2010, the shot-stopper spent the next seven seasons travelling around the A-League Men competition and becoming a reliable keeper for the Wellington Phoenix, Perth Glory, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC.
During his time in the A-Leagues he was in the team of the season four times, named goalkeeper of the year in 2016-17 and was a two-time Mariners Medal winner.
Though now into the back end of his career, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t be able replicate the magic he had during his journeyed his first stint in the league.
He returns having starred in Belgium with Genk from 2017 to 2021, making 101 appearances, where he was named as the club’s player of the season in 2017/18 before spending a season in the Netherlands with NEC Nijmegen.
One of Australia’s top keepers in recent years, he’s also been part of the Socceroos set up, serving as the number two behind Mat Ryan.
A wealth of experience and a steady hand in goal, the Mariners looked to have for the short term filled the void and found their new number one keeper, and a valuable asset not only on-field, but off as well.
Out of the nine players which departed the Mariners during the offseason, several of whom were key to the side last season, centre-back Kye Rowles is the one which leaves the biggest hole.
The 24-year-old had an incredible season in which he became one of the top defenders in the league, earning himself a move Hearts in Scotland where he’s already asserted himself.
Having made 104 appearances for the Mariners from 2017 to 2022, Rowles quickly became a regular and a reliable player during the clubs years of struggles.
Though a mainstay in the Mariners’ first team for years prior to 2022, he took his game to another level in the 2021/22 campaign, taking out the club’s player of the season award for the second time running.
A rock in defence, leading the Mariners for clearances per 90 and blocks per 90, and a joint Mark Viduka Medallist for his stellar performance against the Victory in the FFA Cup final, he’d catch the eye of Graham Arnold, getting called up to the Socceroos.
He’d also get on the radars of recruiters abroad, ultimately landing the Hearts deal. He’s become a regular in their starting XI, linking up with fellow Aussie Cam Devlin.
Though the Mariners have proven they can find coverage when key players depart, Rowles’ composure and defensive output will be sorely missed.
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What to expect:
Having the biggest turnaround of any club in the competition in recent seasons, Montgomery’s side looks poised to be pushing for finals following an encouraging first season at the helm of the Mariners.
They’ve lost several heart and soul players of the club with Birighitti, Rowles, Ruon Tongyik, Oliver Bozanic and Marco Urena all departing during the offseason.
Though big names to walk out the doors on paper, the Mariners wouldn’t be too concerned as they’ll believe the emergence of their young talent and recent signees will keep them in good stead.
Towards the end of last year’s campaign, Bozanic was frozen out of the squad, and Max Ballard came in and emerged as a capable central midfielder.
The 21-year-old cemented a spot in the first team, while aforementioned Dan Hall overtook Tongyik as the preferred starting centre half. Once Hall was struck down, Montgomery opted to blood youngster Cameron Windust.
After impressing last season, Hall and Windust will get their opportunities to shine again. Nigerian Kelechi John will slot in alongside either of the two at centre back, joining from Portuguese outfit Casa Pia.
On the other end of the pitch, the Mariners have the firepower required to replicate what brought them success last campaign, having transitioned away from a defensive side to a bold and attacking outfit.
Last season the Mariners were one of the top scoring sides in the A-League Men competition, with their 49 goals only bettered by Melbourne City. Boasting a positive goal difference of 14 goals, they had the third best scoring differential in the league.
Having scored double digits in the league last season despite only arriving in January, the newly capped Socceroo Cummings will be set to be the focal point of the Mariners attack again, and eclipse his goal tally of the 21/22 season with a full preseason under his belt.
Ghanan forward Paul Ayongo, who joins from a stint in Portugal with Académico Viseu, will play the supporting striker role. Portuguese winger Marco Túlio should also add some extra firepower on the right wing.
The Mariners are primed for another solid season, and have built a squad which should have them poised for another finals berth.
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