05/03/2024

The Central Coast squad and staff celebrate a come from behind win against Western United with their fans. (Photo: Central Coast Mariners)

It may feel like a lifetime ago, but in the early 2010s, the Central Coast Mariners were one of the premier teams in the A-League Men competition. A silverware-heavy period saw Mariners fans enjoy the success that would become hard to find in the years to come.

Between seasons 2014/15 and 2019/20, the once proud Mariners failed to make finals, only finishing as high as eighth but as languishing as low as 11th. It was a far cry from the club that once used to expect championships.

After hitting rock bottom, both on and off the field, the Mariners needed to reset and innovate to once again become a viable A-Leagues club. That is exactly what has happened under its last two head coaches Nick Montogomery and Alen Stajcic.

There have been a few eye-catching initiatives the Mariners have introduced which have led the side to two consecutive finals appearances, on track for a third, while once again being a club that its community is proud of and wants to be a part of.

Recycling with purpose and appreciating the underappreciated

Recycling has become a dirty word in the A-Leagues, and mostly for a good reason. Fans get upset when clubs sign players that have underwhelmed in multiple spots in the league instead of blooding new players into the system.

This is a fair assessment, especially considering some players get close to representing half the teams in the competition, but a deeper look is required into how clubs conduct this ‘recycling’.

As a club, the Mariners have shown a willingness to give players that have been undervalued by their former clubs an opportunity to earn regular A-Leagues minutes.

These are not players that have underwhelmed, but players that have just not been given the consistent opportunity to shine.

When looking at the Mariners lineup, there are multiple examples in players such as Samuel Silvera (originally of Western Sydney), Nectarios Triantis (Sydney and Western Sydney), Thomas Aquilina (Western Sydney), and Michael Ruhs (Macarthur).

In their previous clubs, these players got opportunities ranging from limited to non-existent, but they have all played important minutes for the Mariners early in season 2022/23.

The players the Mariners recycle are all young, and talented; it would not shock anyone if they eventually got their much-coveted overseas moves and a payday for the Mariners to reward their investment.

Along with that, the club havs shown a willingness to invest in international players from untapped markets.

Vanuatu National Team captain Brian Kaltak has turned heads early into his maiden A-League Men season with composed and assured performances in the heart of Central Coast’s defence, while a club with more resources in Sydney FC is struggling to fill a void in the same position.

Playing to win instead of to avoid defeat

As presently constructed, the A-Leagues do not punish mediocrity. It’s a fact that the Mariners are familiar with after spending the better half of the last decade languishing near the bottom of the table without severe consequences.

Playing without the fear of relegation would presumably give coaches the freedom to release the shackles from their players while letting them express themselves. Unfortunately in the A-Leagues, that is the exception, not the rule; thankfully, the Mariners under Nick Montgomery are that exception.

While sides often approach games cautiously and feel out the opponent while hoping to pounce on the potential errors, the Mariners force the issue every time they take the field. This young season has seen the Mariners aggressively attack their opponents, scoring 10 goals in their first four games.

Even more impressive is the fact that when things do not go his team’s way, Nick Montogomery is not afraid to roll the dice. This resilience and willingness to take games on is rubbing off on his playing group.

Take the Central Coast’s Round 4 match against Western United for example, where the Mariners, despite their best efforts, found themselves two goals down at halftime.

Montgomery decided to make a massive three changes at halftime, and eventually saw all three of his halftime substitutes impact the game as the Mariners scored four unanswered goals to run away with the win.

That willingness to push for a win was clear when substitute Garang Kuol’s relentless attack got Western defender Nikolai Topor-Stanely sent off. Fellow second-half substitutes Jacob Farrell, Paul Ayongo, and Beni Nkololo rewarded their coach’s roll of the dice with goals.

It was a similar story a week later when after going goalless in the first half against the defensively solid Western Sydney, Montgomery subbed on Samuel Silvera and Michael Ruhs, who combined for three goals to stun the Wanderers in their own backyard.

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A strong culture that builds and utilises its own resources

Anyone that watched Garang Kuol’s A-Leagues All Access feature would have noticed an eye-catching piece of signage in the Mariners training facility. The sign delivers a pretty clear message to to playing group, β€œNO DICKHEADS. NO EXCUSES.”

A-Leagues All Access took fans behind the scenes of Central Coast’s training facility (Image: KEEPUP)

For an attitude like this to work, it cannot be simply embraced by one person or select individuals – it has to be a whole-club approach.

That fact is evident in Gosford, with the Mariners being able to seamlessly integrate foreigners and youth players harmoniously while playing great football. The Mariners are proving that attitude and mentality are often as important as ability, and that starts from the bottom up.

Central Coast has been the league’s front-runners in regards to providing its young players with opportunities, a strong amount of them from its own Academy.

Players like Garang Kuol, Jacob Farrell, Dan Hall, Josh Nisbet, Harrison Steele, and Max Ballard have all represented the Mariners Academy. They have since been promoted to the first team where they are currently making meaningful contributions.

When comparing the Mariners to other ‘big’ sides in the competition there is a stark contrast in how they utilise their young players.

The Wanderers have the best facilities in the land and are situated on a traditional hotbed of young talent, but do not seem to have the same success in integrating youth as the Mariners. It is not because the Mariners have better talent, facilities, or a larger population – quite the opposite is true.

Instead, the Mariners have made promoting and integrating young players part of their strategy, one that is already proving profitable in terms of incoming transfer fees, excitement on the pitch, and points on the board.

The club’s financial position may necessitate a strategy like this, but it is one that can succeed and is frankly required in league with a position on the world football food chain like the A-League Men.

Engaging with the community

Sporting organisations often lose their way when they begin disregarding the communities that they represent. For a regional, community-based club like the Mariners, losing touch is just not an option.

Even through their darkest days, the Mariners maintained a strong presence in their community. With results improving on the pitch, those initiatives have gone from strength to strength and fans are engaging in great numbers and passion.

The Mariners have often been happy to accept making a small financial sacrifice to get people attached to their club.

Only last year, for a derby against the Jets, the Mariners ran a ‘bring a mate through the gate’ initiative, where any member could register and bring along as many people to the game as they wanted, free of charge.

An experience like this can engage casual football fans who are originally on a day trip, and it can eventually lead them down a road where they become invested in the football club themselves.

The Mariners have also made their games accessible for kids, in the past running initiatives like ‘kids go free’ or ‘up to four free junior tickets with every adult ticket purchased’.

Initiatives like that combined with the exhilarating football played in Gosford and the Mariners’ Academy heavily utilised in the senior squad allows young fans to be engaged on a more personal level. Most importantly, it allows them to dream.

The group picture of fans and players after wins is also a fantastic tradition that shows the connection between the field and the stands. It makes for great memories of unforgettable nights on the Central Coast.

After years of pain, the Mariners are doing things right. Not just right, but probably better than the majority of the competition.

All clubs can learn some lessons from the Mariners, whether it is about engaging their community, utilising their own resources, picking up bargains, or playing an exciting brand of football.

Clubs in Australia must accept their lowly position on the vast food chain of world football and operate to make a profit from players who always have an eye on greener, European pastures.

Clubs like the Central Coast are a perfect example of how to balance that fact along with a desire to win, entertain, and make fans for life in the community, one that in Gosford is rebuilding a stronger connection with its representative club every day.

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