Persistence, resilience, and determination: How an unwavering Mariners side defied the odds again
The Central Coast Mariners have always been the A-Leagues little club that could. They represent a small coastal town on Australia’s eastern seaboard, wedged between Sydney and Newcastle. The Mariners' success in their early years perfectly captured magic not many sports outside of football can provide.
The club lost that magic for a long time in the 2010s, but they finally reaped the benefits of their youth policy in the 2020/21 season. They unearthed several quality youngsters who combined better with higher-quality visa signings than in their recent seasons. That combination saw them reach third under Alen Stajcic.
And following his resignation in the off-season, many fans and pundits had the Mariners written off before they had kicked a ball. Key players such as Daniel De Silva, Stefan Nigro, Alou Kuol, Jack Clisby, and Gianni Stensness left the club. Meanwhile, visa players Michał Janota and Stefan Jankovic also departed. With many signings that followed being relative unknowns, the popular opinion was that the Mariners were destined for a wooden spoon they became so accustomed to in recent seasons.
Danny De Silva was the highest-profile departure in the Mariners' previous off-season. (Sporting News Australia)
And by the halfway point of this season, it looked like it would be the same old story for the Mariners. They had won only three of their first 12 matches and sunk to as low as 11th on the table, with finals football looking unattainable.
However, the following weeks brought positive results that saw the club climb back up the table and the sense of community they had lost in the years of poor results and COVID restrictions.
Central Coast finished the regular season strongly, losing only once in 14 games, and winning their last five. (CODE Sports)
Initiatives to get fans back in the stands produced two of the club's top three attendance figures this season. Their match against Western United attracted just over 5000, whilst the F3 Derby and final home game of the season saw 11,703 witness their 4-2 win over big rivals Newcastle.
It’s a reward for a team that excited fans across the league, even at their worst. Young players such as Jacob Farrell successfully stepped into the first team and never looked back. Meanwhile, players like Harrison Steele, Josh Nisbet, Lewis Miller, and Max Balard competed for starting spots.
Jacob Farrell has been a standout player in his debut season. (7 News)
Early in the season, their inexperience showed. The Mariners took time to gel adequately with various new international and domestic acquisitions. A COVID-enforced break hit, where reports said the virus had gone through just about all staff and players. Thus momentum was slow, and the club went on a seven-game winless run.
However, only one of those games saw the Mariners fall by more than one goal. In that time, four results were decided by goals the Mariners conceded in the 90th minute or later.
There were only narrow margins in these games as the Mariners still showed their undoubted potential. But the constant late turn of events would damage the confidence of even their best players. Even star mid-season signing Jason Cummings was at a loss as to how they kept ending up in these situations.
However, persistence was crucial, and Nick Montgomery, despite some concern from fans regarding his tactics, stuck to his guns. He led the side's turnaround while continually showing faith in their young squad.
A scrappy 2-1 win over Brisbane Roar, who at the time was the only team below them, was the match that turned their season around. Despite some draws in the following games, the ship had steadied, and they soon became one of the competition's most in-form sides.
The Mariners 2-1 win against Brisbane in February proved to be the turning point of their season. (CCMariners)
Cummings proved vital to their turnaround, scoring eight goals and assisting a further four since that home win over Brisbane.
Meanwhile, the young players in the squad were able to ride their confidence, with young forward Garang Kuol fast becoming the talk of the competition.
The 17-year-old scored on his league debut against the Wellington Phoenix, then netted a further three, and assisted a late Mariners equaliser against the Western Sydney Wanderers. It was a moment that showed a complete shift in mentality from their mid-season winless run.
The international signings that came as unknowns also played a big part in the squad’s turnaround, particularly Béni NKololo. The French winger got off to a sluggish start to his time in Gosford but slowly found his feet around the midway point of the season, proving to be a vital signing for the club.
Most managers in the modern game would make drastic changes. But Montgomery’s confidence in his tactics and personnel proved to be the most significant point of difference for the Mariners' season.
It was a team that needed time to get used to one another. Montgomery gave them time to work with one another and adapt to his style of play, particularly the squad's younger members. He reaped the rewards in the end, with many fans touting him the Manager of the Season.
Nick Montgomery is fast becoming one of the top managers in the competition. (CCMariners)
The Mariners quickly became one of the most exciting teams in the competition, finishing the regular season with the second-highest goals (49), only bested by Melbourne City. It was also 14 more than they scored in the previous season under Stajcic. And despite finishing lower on the table, they also managed the same number of points as last season.
Again their season ended in the elimination finals after Adelaide beat them 3-1 at Coopers Stadium. But compared to people's expectations of the club this year, it was a campaign they could certainly look back on with fondness.
The club didn’t let outside critics deter them from a strong campaign, and should they hold onto the bulk of their squad, they have a solid platform to build on for 2022/23.
The early departures of Rowles and Miller could raise questions over the side's ability to make a push for finals once again. But the Mariners have a history of ensuring a new academy product is lined up to replace any departures. Whilst Storm Roux will most likely be the short-term replacement for Lewis Miller, Rowles' spot in the team could be covered by young centre-back Cameron Windust. He was introduced to the first team in the latter stages of last season.
The story of Central Coast’s season is one of resilience, determination, and a strong belief in what they stand for as a club. They have refused to compromise who they are in search of success. The strong foundations they hold are why many fans across the country enjoy seeing this Mariners side do well. It has been a long time coming for the Mariners to return to where they once were many years ago, and now that they’re back, don’t expect them to fall anytime soon.
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