The Central Coast Mariners celebrating in the 2023 A-League Men Grand Final which sealed them qualification to the AFC Cup. Photo Credit: Joshua Davis

The Central Coast Mariners celebrating in the 2023 A-League Men Grand Final which sealed them qualification to the AFC Cup. Photo Credit: Joshua Davis

In the early hours of Monday morning, Australian football fans woke up to the news that the Central Coast Mariners lifted Asian silverware in the AFC Cup, after travelling almost three times around the world to do so.

Disappointingly, it wasn’t considered newsworthy enough to be on the back pages of newspapers and spoken about in-depth via the mainstream media, despite the Gosford-based club achieving one of the most astonishing miracles in the nation’s illustrious sporting history.

When we talk about the classic rags to riches stories that touch hearts and share the power to inspire, times of suffering and desperation usually engage the interest to continue following the magical tale which has been nothing short of existence for the Mariners.

Upward and downward concaves have led fans on an emotional rollercoaster beginning in 2005/06 during the club’s inaugural season to shock the competition and reach the Grand Final, only to suffer what would inevitably become the dawn of further heartbreaks.

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Two seasons later, a crushing 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Newcastle Jets in their second grand Final involving a red card to now-current Mariners goalkeeper Danny Vukovic, would harm his reputation and add another bitter pill to swallow. If that wasn’t bitter enough, a 2-0 advantage in extra time slipped away in the dying seconds to fall short once again against Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar in 2012.

Were the Mariners cursed? Were they ever going to successfully climb the mountain without falling at the dreaded final hurdle?

Those lingering questions didn’t take long to find conclusions, as the Mariners broke their hoodoo at the fourth time of asking the following season under the guidance of coach Graham Arnold and an experienced core among the likes of Matt Simon, Patrick Zwaanswijk, Daniel McBreen, and John Hutchinson.

However, when it was time for the veterans to hang up their boots, it was blatantly clear that the club failed to set a long-term vision and any solid foundations to build for the future and rekindle a winning formula.

Every A-League club has experienced its fair share of hardships and tribulations in some form or capacity, but nothing could prepare the Mariners for the pain they would endure after claiming their maiden championship.

In the next six seasons between 2014-2019:

– Four wooden spoons
– 26 wins in 161 matches (16.15 per cent win rate)
– A combined goal difference of -171

Financially, the club was a shambles with very minimal light at the end of the tunnel to turn its fortunes around and discontinue being a laughing stock to not only the competition but Australian sport.

Yet, the writing was on the wall during their success in 2013 when it was revealed by The Australian that players did not receive their regular payment after an AFC Champions League match, leaving former owner Peter Turnbull scrambling to find new ownership.

No results, abysmal defending, and a lack of identity on the pitch meant it was all the more remarkable that the Mariners attracted an average crowd of over 7,500 per Austadiums during those dire six campaigns consisting of nothing other than a dead end.

However, the Mariners are a unique organisation whereby they benefit from being the only club in the A-League to possess the privilege of representing a regional area, as Socceroos legend and former Central Coast coach Paul Okon explained the significance of the community spirit when first appointed manager back in 2016.

“We want to give our supporters, the people who have been loyal to this club a reason to keep coming back to Central Coast Stadium and we want to give new people a reason to come and watch this team play football,” he said.

“After a disappointing season, we want to grow our supporter base and the only way we can do that is by playing a brand of football that’s going to excite people and get people talking about our club again.”

When eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt produced worldwide headlines during his trial with the Mariners in 2018, optimism was relevant with the potential for an increase in ticket sales, promotional revenue, and a positive public spotlight on a club that was on life support to the point where there was serious debate around their longevity of existence.

But what about the pessimistic side of the coin? What would the signing of an unproven 32-year-old at the professional level say about the state of the Mariners and the dire straits of the deeper roots of their long list of problems?

In hindsight, Bolt’s failed move was the catalyst for them to snap out of stagnation and become proactive instead of reactive.

It was almost poetry in motion when Alen Stajcic took over the helm on the bench to resurrect not only his managerial career but the Mariners’ relevance in the domestic scope, enacting a ‘clean out’ and signing the likes of Oliver Bozanic and Marco Urena to achieve their first finals appearance since their maiden championship triumph.

They were no one-season wonder, however. This was a club that built valuable foundations to stabilise themselves financially, on the pitch, and create a sustainable model that included embracing the community.

Adelaide United have previously been praised, and deservedly so, for their willingness to invest and develop in the youth talent pool at their disposal by offering exposure at senior level. For some instances though, there have been times when the Reds have had little choice but to turn to their inexperienced players due to simply having no one else to step in.

The Mariners in that sense are different because, over the past couple of seasons, they have incorporated a healthy mix of youth and experience that has moulded into a winning formula – taking full flight last year when Nick Montgomery guided the club he captained to an unforeseen championship to humilate heavy favourites Melbourne City 6-1 in the Grand Final.

As the expected departures of influential names such as Montogomery and Jason Cummings eventuated, the model didn’t change – even in times of hysteria when the Mariners commenced this campaign with four consecutive defeats.

Montgomery wasn’t fazed by the slow start and always believed in the project in which he was heavily involved.

“It’s still a very young and talented squad, but the season still has a long way to go,” he said.

“I’m sure that they’ll pick up both in terms of performances and results moving forward because there are still players there who won the championship only a few months ago.

“There are some young players who need time to gel within the squad and adapt. If you look around the rest of the competition, there are a lot more younger players which contributes to inconsistency at the start of the season.”

In stepped Mark Jackson as the new coach, not losing sight of the promising trajectory the club was heading toward. An attacking and exciting brand of football picked up from last season lifted them off the bottom of the table, to lurking around the top six, to contending for a top-two berth, to then claiming the premiers plate.

Former championship winner with the Mariners, Daniel McBreen, said recently that “they seem to find these diamonds in the rough, cast-offs that nobody wants, these troubled players they bring them in, get their arm around them and bring the best out of them.”

Josh Nisbet has made a name for himself as arguably the best player in the competition this season, Mikael Doka was an unknown talent, Jacob Farrell has been a revelation and Alou Kuol is attracting interest from overseas like many current players.

The implementation of development and growth is one thing, but to compete in multiple competitions and win silverware is a completely different story altogether and one that must be celebrated in its entirety.

Midweek AFC Cup matches added to fixture rescheduling as well as being forced to stay in Kyrgyzstan for an extra 48 hours due to flooding, have ultimately shaped their mentality and resilience in conquering adversity.

Add 2.3 million AUD to the kitty after their success in Asia, the reigning champions of Australia have never found themselves in a more luxurious position to kick on and build on their model which other clubs in the country are surely taking out their pens and frantically jotting down notes.

Now, the Mariners are three games away from achieving the unthinkable – a coveted treble.

Whether it be Lawrie McKinna’s legacy as the inaugural coach and offering his expertise at board level or recently departed CEO Shaun Mielekamp’s nine years of dedicated service – everyone at the club both past and present has bought into the project.

They were the laughingstock of the country a few years ago with sauce bottle memes and Marvin the mascot at the centre of social media banter and jokes to provoke.

Funnily enough, it’s the yellow and blue army who are having the last laugh in one of Australian sports’ most cherishable stories in recent memory.

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