A-League preview No3: Central Coast Mariners

Stability and a common-sense approach means Central Coast Mariners are again likely to punch above their weight

Guardian writers’ prediction: 7th (please note this is not necessarily Pete’s prediction)

Last season’s position: 3rd (lost in semi-final)

Central Coast Mariners have earned a reputation as the A-League’s most stable club, at least in the football department. Questions marks over ownership and financing are recurring themes, as they are for many in the A-League. It makes the Mariners’ steadiness all the more impressive, and with some judicious off-season recruiting the club are once again likely to be in contention at the business end of the season.

Their three coaches Lawrie McKinna, Graham Arnold and Phil Moss have all had a similar approach when it comes to club culture, and recognising the particular nuances of the area they represent. There is a hint of old-school boot-room culture given the general focus on development from within. Indeed Moss’s transition into the senior coaching role was seamless. It’s hard to believe he moved into the top job less than 12 months ago. Even if a rich benefactor came their way, one imagines the Mariners would hesitate about the value of a marquee recruit if the cost is more than just financial.

The club boasts a humble nature based on work-ethic and team culture, and are not prone to fancy whims that will be gone within a season. In many ways the mentality is one that is forged in the image of the locals. You won’t likely find pulled-pork sliders or single origin coffee served by waiters with affectations in Wyong , while inner-city bushranger beards are thin on the ground in Gosford. Perhaps the club’s modest base and area’s mentality is also their greatest strength. While some club’s have suffered under multiple identities over the past decade, the Mariners’ outlook remains largely unchanged.

The change in personnel since last term is modest compared to some clubs, but even if the exit door had been busy, the Mariners still could be quietly confident. Last season they lost the likes of Trent Sainsbury, Mat Ryan, Patrick Zwaanswijk and Michael McGlinchey, not to mention Arnold who departed for the J-League early in the campaign. Yet still the Mariners were only goal difference away from second place.

The competition’s smallest club are also unsurpassed by their rivals when it comes to AFC Champions League qualification. Yet still the Mariners fly under the radar. Not only does that fit the club’s mantra, but one gets the distinct that is just how they like it.

“We know who we are and what we are as a club, and once again we have no one backing us, which is great,” said Moss. “The beauty of this pre-season is I can honestly say I’ve got 22 players fighting for a spot, whether that’s first XI or match-day squad. In that regard I think we’ve progressed.”

The local region’s junior base is small, the equivalent of one of Sydney’s larger associations. Yet youth player recruitment both locally and across NSW is impressive. Players are constantly coming through the ranks and now even the Socceroos are starting to feel the benefit. Think Ryan, Sainsbury, Oliver Bozanic, Mitch Duke and others. Last season Storm Roux, Anthony Caceres and Zac Anderson all stepped up and rarely faltered. Expect several of the latest wave of fresh faced youngsters – Liam Rose, Anthony Kalac, Tom Slater, Micky Neill among them – to be familiar names by season’s end. Once again the new brigade will be expected to fill the void left by higher-profile names. Mile Sterjovski, Marcos Flores, Adam Kwasnik, Bernie Ibini and Marcel Seip have all departed for a variety of reasons.

With a full pre-season under his belt Korean attacker Kim Seung-Yong, who arrived early this year, is almost like a new recruit, according to Moss. Further international flavour has been added with the arrival of Hungarian attacking midfielder Richard Vernes and Senegalese striker Malick Mane. Moss has high expectations for the pair and it would be a major surprise if they didn’t slot in well, both in terms of quality and outlook. Moss and the Mariners are not the kind to be easily won over by a YouTube highlights reel of curling free-kicks and a Brazilian passport.

Which club sent their players out to work for a day in the local community during the off-season flipping burgers and selling insurance? Answer: the same club which had a giant farewell card passed around the members seats to be signed for the retirement of Zwaanswijk last season. The Mariners methods might be unfashionable but the success, and indeed level of over-achievement, has been undeniable. In an A-League season that will surely be the tightest yet, expect the Mariners to again punch above their weight.


Pete Smith

The GuardianTramp

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