Story republished courtesy Central Coast Sun
The Central Coast Mariners are on the cusp of A-League glory, just 180 minutes from the Grand Final and with a huge home semi-final locked in at Industree Group Stadium on Saturday 20 May. Renowned football writer RAY GATT tells how the Mariners have defied the odds to become the giant-killers of the league.
Is there a better feel-good story in Australian sport than the Central Coast Mariners?
The under-rated Isuzu Ute Men’s A-League club with the smallest budget in the competition has yet again defied the odds to put themselves into a position to win the title after a stellar season in which they put some of the bigger clubs to shame.
Under the astute coaching of Nick Montgomery, his backroom staff and a hard-working management team led by Chief Executive Shaun Mielekamp, the Yellow and Navy finished the preliminary season on a high, earning second spot behind runaway leaders and championship favourites Melbourne City
Now they are just 180 minutes of football away from a Grand Final berth, which could be secured when they play the second leg of their semi-final in front of what should be a sell-out crowd at their home ground, the stunningly picturesque Industree Group Stadium in Gosford on Saturday 20 May.
It is an extraordinary situation given the Mariners were largely written off as top-six hopefuls let alone championship contenders at the start of the season.
But it’s nothing new for a club that has always had to do battle against the odds and do things the hard way.
During their so far 18-year history, they have never had the massive financial support of the likes of Melbourne City, Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers. It has often been a matter of begging and borrowing as they have attempted to keep their head above water.
There have been times when genuine fears have been held for the future of the Central Coast club, such as the period between 2014 and 2020 when the Mariners, who won their first and only A-League title in 2013, were in the depths of despair through disastrous on-field results and financial issues.
There was often talk of relocating the club to Canberra, while the ownership also took games to North Sydney Oval, much to the disgust of fans.
To say the club was an embarrassment and the laughing stock of the competition would be an understatement as they collected the unwanted wooden spoon four times in five seasons between 2016 and 2020.
But things started to turn around during the 2020-21 season. The appointment of former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic the season before and the belief in the club’s youth academy set-up, which Montgomery was influencing, had a huge effect.
The Mariners finished third that season before being eliminated from the Finals Series. Stajcic decided to move on, paving the way for club legend Montgomery to take the reins.
Montgomery led the Yellow and Navy to the finals last season, finishing fifth. Along the way he showed tremendous faith in the youth at the club with the emergence of the likes of Garang Kuol, now plying his wares in Scotland, Jacob Farrell, Harrison Steele, Max Balard and Josh Nisbet.
This season “Monty” has fielded the youngest average age squad (23.56 years) in the A-League, outshining some clubs that have attracted quality foreign players.
He has managed to get the best out of the likes of Sammy Silvera, Nectarios Triantis and Christian Theoharous.
Importantly, Montgomery’s ability to make what might be deemed “interesting” signings has played a huge role. You only have to look at the extrovert striker Jason Cummings – who has taken the league by storm on and off the field – Marco Tulio, Beni N’Kolo and Brian Kaltak.
The return of goalkeeper Danny Vukovic after a successful stint in European football has also been instrumental in the success of the club this season.
While things have fallen into place on the field, it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of the off- field management team led by Mielekamp and the emergence of new owner Richard Peil, who purchased a majority shareholding of the club from previous owner Mike Charlesworth.
Peil, the founder of the Anytime Fitness group, is determined to lead the way for the Mariners. He could not have asked for a better introduction to sports club ownership, though the battle is far from won.
A “Coastie” through and through, Mielekamp has done the hard yards in sports administration, notably working in the National Rugby League in various roles and in tandem with the likes of Shane Richardson at South Sydney, where he also got to deal with Russell Crowe, Phil Gould at Penrith and Lyall Gorman at the Western Sydney Wanderers.
But his heart has always been with the Mariners even if the first few years of his tenure were played out under extreme pressure.
Now, however, the fruits of his hard work and passion for the club is there for all to see.
All that remains now is for the Mariners to once again prove the doubters and doomsayers wrong and, hopefully, bring a second championship to the Central Coast.
- General Admission tickets for the Central Coast Mariners’ second leg home semi-final at Industree Group Stadium on Saturday 20 May go on sale Tuesday 9 May from 12noon via Ticketek.
- Stadium Members have this game included in their 2023 Membership package. Enquire about becoming an Industree Group Stadium Member here: https://industreegroupstadium.com.au/membership/
- You can experience the Mariners home semi-final in style with Premium Catered Hospitality options – click here.
- Visiting the Central Coast? Why not make a weekend of it. Check out where to stay and play here: https://www.lovecentralcoast.com/