Legend has it that Arthur – the Once and Future King – lies in his tomb awaiting England’s hour of need and will rise again to lead them out of their darkest peril.
It would rather overstrain the analogy to apply that idea to the Mariners although Matty Simon has gone and returned more than once. Certainly, the Little Club that Could is punching above its weight again.
As a Mariners fan from the day the franchise was announced – Melbourne Cup Day 2004 – I’ve seen all the highs and lows. Full stadia and trophies in the Lawrie McKinna days – sparkling football, future Socceroos and more trophies in the Arnie days, and any number of false dawns thereafter.
It’s been nothing but pain for the last seven seasons, but the green shoots were evident last year. It was clear to some of us that Alen Stajcic was slowly righting the sinking ship, getting some decent performances out of key players, bringing in some interesting newcomers and establishing something of a coherent playing style.
It wasn’t enough to keep us off the bottom of the ladder but the crowd – pared down to the hardest of the hard core – had something to inspire hope. There were players to cheer beyond just Birrighitti in goals.
There was also the success of the Academy teams under Monty. Some really good players in the NPL and Y-League teams started to hit the radar and several have become new crowd favourites.
God knows what Stajcic did over the pre-season but several players have really gone to a new level this campaign. Kye Rowles, Ruon Tongyik and Jack Clisby have been excellent. Stefan Nigro also.
The midfield has been completely dominant, led by Ollie Bozanic and Gianni Stensness.
And the forwards have been potent. Matt Simon looks like he’s dropped about ten years and 19 yo Alou (Tiger) Kuol is playing like a striker at the peak of his powers. Add to that the quality of the new foreigners, Josh Nisbet and the re-emergence of Danny De Silva as a serious attacking force and you have a recipe for success.
But for a team like the Mariners, success has to be bought with currency other than cash. We can’t afford the marquee superstars so we’ve always had to rely on the more intangible incentives – like team spirit, the desire to be part of a David v Goliath ethos, and the full-blooded support of the local community.
That team/community connection was lost after Lawrie McKinna left the club. Arnie had a couple of years of outstanding results but the team (full of Socceroos and future European professionals) became remote from the supporters. When Mossy took over the team was slowly decimated and the spirit was gone. He was on a hiding to nothing.
I started to say at that time that John Hutchinson should have been given the job. He was the last link to the Lawrie days and someone who really got the Mariners. He was also an excellent coach. I remember attending a coach’s session for Avoca FC run by Hutcho and I was knocked out by his insights and drills.
But I’m not the only one who thinks so – am I right Ange Postecoglou? (Hutcho is now his assistant at Yokohama.)
He didn’t get the Mariners job. Instead we got Walmsley, Mulvey and a cavalcade of others who didn’t get the Central Coast community and its need to feel connection with the team.
But finally that connection has been restored. The players understand that they must not be locked away from the supporters. They have to be part of the community up here and nowhere is that connection more evident than the relationship between Ruon Tongyik and his neighbour Remo Pertot (very hard core).
This is the kind of stuff that makes the locals believe that the players represent them – are not just here to play football for money. And if they believe that, they’ll turn up at the ground to cheer – win, lose or draw.
Because as much as the Mariners’ lofty position on the ladder after seven rounds is indicative of a return to the glory days, so also is the enthusiasm in the stands, with numbers creeping up every week and the roar getting louder and louder. You can actually feel the buzz in and outside the ground again, rather than the sullen resolve of the last few years.
Alen Stajcic has really built something in Gosford and already I am worrying about the team being torn apart next season as richer clubs (both here and overseas) begin to take notice.
Most importantly, the club has to sort out its ownership issues (possibly less difficult now given the new lease of life). Then the club has to tie down Stajcic to a long term contract (and Monty). Then we have to nail down the spine for a good few seasons (if only to get a decent transfer fee for them).
I want to watch this team develop for years, and Alen Stajcic? Mark Rudan reckons he must be Merlin, but it looks to me as though he truly has pulled the sword from the stone.
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His new novel, Welcome to Ord City, is now available.