Melbourne City captain Scott Jamieson and Central Coast Mariners captain Danny Vukovic pose with the A-League trophy (Picture: Joshua Davis)

Saturday night will witness a tale of two completely contrasting journeys when Melbourne City takes on the Central Coast Mariners in the A-League Grand Final.

Formerly recognised as Melbourne Heart adopting the red and white stripes, a new ownership takeover from the City Football Group back in 2014 created a new identity with a new name and new colours.

Melbourne City has benefited greatly from the owner’s continual investment which has ultimately stemmed onto the pitch with dominant performances.

Three straight premierships and four consecutive Grand Finals has rightfully placed them on the peddle stool of a dynasty, producing some of the most scintillating and exciting attacking brand of football that the A-League has ever become accustomed to. City have put themselves in this position due to consistency and stability.

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However, the complete opposite can be said of the Mariners.

Two eight-placed finishes along with four wooden spoons between 2014 and 2020 spelled the darkest period in the club’s history. During that horror run, the Mariners managed to win a dismal 26/161 games (16.1 per cent) which quite frankly served as an embarrassment.

To their credit, the Gosford-based club have impressively redeemed its reputation in the past three seasons, qualifying for finals football on all three occasions, as well as discovering a new identity through developing youth and translating that exciting exuberance into quality football for both the fans and neutrals to enjoy and appreciate.

The upcoming Grand Final in Sydney presents an underlying plot that has flown under the radar. The two figures at the centre of the script are Central Coast manager Nick Montgomery and prolific Melbourne City forward Jamie Maclaren, who are both seeking redemption.

Picture a scenario of City being so dominant without their talisman in Maclaren for a moment. Rightly so, it’s very difficult to imagine the club producing the same results.

The 29-year-old has scored an astounding 88 goals spanning the past four seasons, where the club has simply been superior over the rest of the competition.

Heartbreak has followed Maclaren regarding silverware since his time at the club.

Back in 2020, Sydney FC claimed a historic fifth A-League Men’s championship as they overcame Maclaren and City by a solidarity goal in extra-time. Last year, Western United produced an incredible upset as firm underdogs, claiming bragging rights against their Melbourne neighbours to claim their first-ever championship.

Unlike those two occasions where Maclaren made an appearance, it was the 2021 Grand Final at AAMI Park against Sydney FC that ultimately caused the most pain.

Travelling for the Socceroos on international duty against Kuwait, City’s talisman was forced into hotel quarantine upon his arrival back in Australia. As a consequence, he tragically missed out on his side’s 3-1 triumph, proving to be their only championship to this day.

During his time in quarantine, he spoke with Adam Peacock on the Fox Football Podcast where he explained his decision to travel as well as missing out on the showpiece event.

“It was worth it, playing for your country is the greatest honour. You’d fly to the moon to play for your country…it’s the biggest honour you can have in football.

“For me, I wish I was there, I wish I could just even be on a Zoom call just even in that dressing room. It’s going to be so hard watching,” Maclaren said.

Perhaps, it could provide him with that extra fire and adrenaline to produce on the biggest stage. Don’t be surprised if City’s number nine finds himself on the scoresheet for the first time in a Grand Final.

On the opposite side, Central Coast Mariners coach Nick Montgomery has unequivocally served as the heartbeat of that football club since his playing days, experiencing the honour of wearing the captain’s armband.

Under coach Graham Arnold, the Mariners were looking to put their past two Grand final appearances behind them by hoping to claim their first championship in 2013 against the Western Sydney Wanderers.

In their semi-final against Melbourne Victory, Montgomery received a second yellow card in the 91st minute, leading to his cruel suspension for the Grand Final in which the Mariners prevailed as 2-0 winners.

Watching that moment again while experiencing the dreaded walk down the tunnel, the look on his face conveyed nothing more than disappointment and anguish. Not even a moment of comfort from Arnold was enough to help ease the suffering.

Fast forward ten years later, and Montgomery has given himself and his squad another opportunity to lift the most coveted prize in Australian football.

Ahead of the decider, the Mariners’ boss is confident that his team can contribute to a great spectacle and put up a gallant fight.

“We can’t wait to walk out and, whatever happens that night, we’ll give it a good crack.

“We know we can beat anybody, so we’ll go in full of confidence and go in and try to win the game against a very good Melbourne City team,” Montgomery said.

He may not be lacing up the boots this time around, but being a part of this upcoming occasion from the bench and having an influence will serve as an opportunity that the 41-year-old will not want to squander.

There can’t be too many arguments that Melbourne City has been the best team during the regular season, but the Mariners have been the darling story for the neutrals considering their journey over the years, providing the biggest reason to support an incredible underdog story.

Amongst all of that, a fascinating story will be played out of its own when Maclaren and Montgomery aim to apply a bandage on the bleeding suffered from the past and finally hold aloft the trophy at CommBank Stadium.

Who will crave success the most?

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