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  • Writer's pictureJake Holub

Underdogs chasing a treble: The Central Coast Mariners' development into winners

Despite the increased intensity of competing both domestically and travelling all across Asia, the Central Coast Mariners continue to show that they are not just underdogs who stumbled upon an A-League Men Championship last season. Rather, the side has learnt the art of winning and finding a way to points in challenging games, with the Mariners continuing their hunt to become the first ever Australian club to complete a treble by claiming the A-League Men Premiership, Championship, and AFC Cup in season 2023/24.

Mark Jackson is potentially on the verge of leading the Central Coast Mariners to a historic treble this season. (Image: Sourced from Central Coast Mariners Instagram)


After experiencing teething issues early on in the season under new head coach Mark Jackson, once the former player and coach at Leeds United further adapted to Australian football, the Central Coast Mariners did not look back. Despite Central Coast losing the opening four games of their A-League Men season, they went on a 12-game undefeated streak in the league, skyrocketing to the top of the table with only two games to play.


While maintaining strong domestic performances, the Mariners have found an excellent balance by still emphasising the AFC Cup. Finishing top of Group G in the group stage, Central Coast progressed past Phnom Penh Crown, Macarthur, and then Odisha to secure a spot in the competition's inter-zonal play-off semi-final.


By securing a 1-1 draw in Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday after what was described as a "gruelling journey" by Jackson, the Mariners have set themselves up nicely for their second leg at home to FK Abdysh-Ata Kant, a win being the final step in securing a spot in the AFC Cup Final.


With the first leg in Kyrgyzstan marking the Mariners' fourth game in 15 days, they have repeatedly proven their ability to pick up points during tough periods this season, picking up maximum points in the league over this recent stretch against some top opposition. An added challenge heading into the final part of the season will be how they handle losing two key players, Jacob Farrell and Alou Kuol, to the Olyroos' Asian Cup campaign.

But circling back, their recent league form has been undoubtedly impressive. Western United certainly appeared as a potential obstacle for the Mariners last weekend, particularly after John Aloisi's side completed an impressive comeback to beat Macarthur in their first-ever game in Tarneit the week before. The Mariners have also historically struggled in Victoria. This trend seemed like it was going to continue early on, as Jackson's side started slow and failed to create chances in the first half.


Central Coast ultimately found a way in the end, with a Max Balard goal early in the second half, pouncing on a mistake from Western, and a late Christian Theoharous screamer being enough to seal all three points for the Mariners, despite trailing the hosts on expected goals (xG).

Although performance-wise it was not ideal or pretty from a side we have seen play eye-catching and fast-paced football this season, the result represented the development of Central Coast's squad, where once inexperienced and young players now possess the know-how to pick up results, even when it may be an off-day from the team.


Post-game, Western United manager Aloisi pointed out this fundamental difference between his side and the Mariners, and explained the process it takes to become a winning side.


"We just need to now take those opportunities and learn how to win those games because the Mariners weren't great, but they're knowing how to win those games. That's taken them a bit of time," Aloisi said.


"The likes of Josh Nisbet went through a period there where I think they were three years in a row of wooden spoons...so he's learnt from that. He's able to then teach the young, other players that...They'd learn and they know how to win these games where they're not really playing at their best or dominating."


The Mariners have experienced heads like Danny Vukovic and Storm Roux alongside younger players who have now become crucial and experienced first-team players like Nisbet and Balard. The squad's construction allows young or new players to the club to fit into a strong team culture that has experience in being successful and simply knowing how to win football matches.

While the club's recruitment has been admirable and deserves significant praise, the team first culture established in the dressing room has allowed new signings to blossom in their new environment. Whether it was Marco Tulio and Nectarios Triantis last season, or Angel Torres and Mikael Doka this season, the list of players who have thrived since joining the Mariners in recent years goes on and on.

Beyond the excellent recruitment, squad building and management have also significantly contributed to allowing Central Coast to compete on all fronts, particularly in accounting for the aforementioned departures of Farrell and Kuol.


It is arguably impossible to replace the best left-back in the competition. But Jackson, through experimentation, has found various options at his disposal who can play here. Naturally right-backs, both Roux and Doka have proved to be more than adept at filling in on the left. Jackson has also tried centre-back Nathan Paull in this role. However, he has not pursued this option further, with Paull looking uncomfortable in wider areas.


But Harry Steele now appears to be the natural solution to Farrell's absence, starting the game and putting in a resolute performance against Western United. The 21-year-old then started again against Abdysh. Steele, usually a midfielder, has struggled for game time so far this season, battling injuries that have kept him sidelined for a fair chunk of the campaign.


Naturally left-footed, he did not look out of place playing as a left-sided centre-back in possession against Western, while also putting in a solid defensive shift against the likes of Lachie Wales and Matthew Grimaldi.


This position change was carefully thought out by the coaching staff, where Jackson confirmed that Steele had been prepared to play at left-back during team training.


"We've exposed him (Steele) to a lot of training in that position and every day he got better and better, so he certainly filled us with confidence that he can go into there," Jackson said following the 2-0 win over Western.


"He's a great professional; he's a great lad, he has great character, and as soon as I asked him the question about, 'What do you think about this?' he went 'Yeah, I'll do that, whatever is needed for the team', and I think that typifies the group of players we have and the kind of culture we have within the group and the club that, you know, anybody will do anything for the team."

On the other hand, Jackson and his staff appear to be relatively more straightforward in their efforts to replace Kuol. 21-year-old striker Jing Reec has enjoyed his first season of consistent first-team football, competing for minutes up front alongside Kuol. Reec possesses excellent physical attributes: a quick, tall, and strong number nine who has notably improved his hold-up play and ball retention.


Ryan Edmondson was also added to this striking mix mid-season. The young English forward offers great physicality and size up front for the Mariners. While he has only managed a solitary goal so far in the A-League Men, a hat-trick off the bench in the AFC Cup against Phnom Penh displayed that he is more than capable of scoring goals.

 

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The ability for Jackson to pick between two young and hungry strikers who will want to potentially secure a starting role for the side moving forward, particularly heading into the Finals Series, will only continue to promote further improvements in what is a relatively inexperienced striking cohort.


Although Jackson has opted to select the aforementioned strikers, Dylan Wenzel-Halls offers a different skillset that could still be useful to the side. A quick and agile attacker who is particularly suited to playing in a striking duo, partnering Wenzel-Halls with Reec or Edmondson could certainly be a viable option for the manager should he deem it appropriate.


With their game against Adelaide United this weekend now postponed, Jackson may have some more time on the training track to perhaps further experiment roles and formations for the upcoming games, starting with arguably their biggest game of the campaign to date, the second leg against Abdysh.


While it seemed almost unthinkable heading into the 2023/24 season that the Gosford-based side would be able to replicate Nick Montgomery's brilliant work, Mark Jackson has been able to do so. The Mariners have turned from three-peat wooden spooners to consistent title contenders within half a decade, now aiming for a much different, more positive trio of accolades.

Time will ultimately tell how the club navigates the next month or so. They will need to weigh up domestic and continental responsibilities, both of which pose significant opportunities to cement the Mariners' recent success with more silverware, or, better yet, achieve a truly remarkable double, or even treble.


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