Since he landed in Australia, Jason Cummings has lived up to his reputation as something of a jester. But beyond the jovial nature and Joker-inspired tattoos adorning various parts of his body, the Central Coast striker has established himself among the A-League Men’s best.
His arrival from Dundee in January 2022 passed without major fanfare but 17 goals in 26 appearances in a Mariners shirt, a Socceroos debut and a run out at the Qatar World Cup, have done much to change the narrative. Most recently, his strike against Adelaide proved decisive in a 2-1 win in the first leg of their semi-final at the weekend.
None of the Mariners players who took to the field on Saturday night could be said to have been in high demand when they arrived in Gosford. Some were cast off by previous teams. Many developed in an academy traditionally perceived as subsisting off scraps, not recruited to more resource-laden rivals. Others migrated from the youth ranks of other clubs, sensing a greater opportunity to play. The most experienced, goalkeeper Danny Vukovic, is 38 and back at the club which launched a decorated career.
Yet their unheralded nature is exactly why this Mariners side feels so worth savouring.
Over the course of two seasons, Nick Montgomery has become a coach who will not only give young players minutes, but actively give them scope to impact games and take on responsibility. His team works hard for each other, operates with unified intent in attack and defence, and possesses players that want to receive and operate with the ball in tight areas. Collectively, they play some of the best football in the league.
In an age where, despite the existence of a salary cap, the gap between the haves and the have-nots appears to be increasing, the Mariners have turned surviving into thriving by simply getting the basics right. What they do doesn’t cost a lot of money but they make it work: finding talent unwanted or unappreciated elsewhere, bringing it into an environment that nurtures and develops it, and then putting it in a position to succeed on the pitch.
It is almost aspirational – shrewdness, belief and hard work overcoming material disadvantage.
Started by Alen Stajcic and taken to a new level by Montgomery, it’s a run that harks back to the last time the Mariners won silverware at the end of the 2012-13 season. Under Graham Arnold, himself having arrived in Gosford with something to prove after a tumultuous spell with the national teams, the cash-strapped Mariners won that grand final with a squad featuring a blend of astutely-sourced veterans and youthful faces such Mat Ryan, Tom Rogic, Oliver Bozanic, Trent Sainsbury and Mitch Duke – all of whom would go on to become World Cup Socceroos.
But therein lies the rub. Lean years soon came for that side; the difference-makers moved on, as did Arnold, and couldn’t be adequately replaced. Four wooden spoons in five years followed, as did the threat of collapse swirling over a team so bad they were almost relegated from a league with no relegation.
It’s a tale that provides the best reason for the neutral observer to enjoy this modern Mariners outfit, because their form is laced with the knowledge of how fragile it is. The qualities that make them worthy of celebrating are the same that make their joie de vivre so precipitous.
Teams like the Mariners can’t just outsmart their rivals once, they have to keep doing it time and time again. Lose one too many players in an off-season and get unlucky with the next academy cohort, or hit coal instead of diamonds the next time you go looking in the rough and things can turn in an instant. Montgomery has rapidly proved himself irreplaceable, which will be a bit of a problem when he eventually needs replacing. Ultimately, money might not always buy success, but it does bring a margin for error.
To celebrate these Mariners is to engage in an act of tragic joy, watching on with the knowledge that the same circumstances that have birthed their current fortune is simultaneously the thing most likely to portend their doom; a likeable upstart rowing against the tide of the hyper-capitalist product that is modern football.