A classroom on the Central Coast shows the power of the Mariners’ ‘missing link’, righting an eight-year wrong

Central Coast’s introduction to the Liberty A-League from next year gives young female footballers the same chances as the males to shine, writes Tom Smithies.

If you want the perfect summation of why the Mariners just had to add a women’s team in the Liberty A-League from next season, then you’ll find it in a Year 12 class on the Central Coast.

In that one class you’ll find both Garang Kuol and Annalise Rasmussen – both young strikers, both predicted to go on to big things, and both honed in the Mariners academy. The difference is that while Kuol got into the first team, made a huge splash and has earned a transfer to the Premier League, until Monday Rasmussen had no way of even staying at the club in professional football.

Now, a year before the Mariners return to elite women’s football after having one season in the W-League, she is the club’s first professional female signing. From the outside it looks like a no-brainer, but still one that has taken eight years to make good. Suddenly it feels like there’s a sense of vision on the Central Coast.

When the Mariners join the A-League Women next year, confirmation of which came this week, the missing link will be filled in for Central Coast CEO Shaun Mielekamp.

Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp with the first signing for the club’s new women’s team, Annalise Rasmussen.

After two years when the men’s team seems to have rediscovered its mojo, and a steady stream of young talent re-established, adding a women’s team fills out the club’s identity. On Sunday the men’s team hosts Perth Glory (in Gosford rather than Mudgee thanks to flooding in the Central West of NSW), but longer-term plans are also taking shape.

At a club with a thriving academy for boys and girls, there has always been one screaming anomaly – the talented boys could see a pathway right to the top without leaving their local area. The talented girls, not so much.

Anecdotal evidence from the club’s own academy told Mielekamp that female players were either having to travel long distances to find teams of the appropriate level as they got older – or, worse, they were just quitting football.

Various hurdles along the way have been cleared, most notably the lack of appropriate dressing rooms at Central Coast Stadium for women to play as well as men. In the past three years facilities there have been upgraded to an extent that the Mariners could in theory host a triple-header, and every team would have its own changing rooms.

But the delays and negotiations to get to this point have had one silver lining. The timing of the Mariners coming into the Liberty A-League is, as it turns out, perfect. Just weeks after the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next year, with all the excitement that will entail, a new team representing the Central Coast will start playing professional football.

The fact that the advent of a 12th team will create a full home-and-away season just adds to the momentum. Especially as the Mariners’ Liberty A-League team will play all of its home matches at Central Coast Stadium, some in tandem with the men’s team and others as standalone games.  

Mielekamp calls it “the completion of the brand”. Maybe “completion of the dream” might be a more romantic way of putting it, but either way it completes the club. The Mariners will become eligible for the Club Championship that combines men’s and women’s points totals, and more poetically young girls who fall in love with football on the Central Coast can see a clear pathway on which to aim to get better and better.

Garang Kuol made such an impression with the Mariners that he has been called up by the Socceroos – and bought by Newcastle.

To be fair, this club has always been aware of the need to have a direct link into their own community. Damian Brown (a Gosford native) was the club’s first signing back in 2005. Now Annalise Rasmussen (who joined the club aged 11) follows suit for the women’s team.

Over the next few weeks the club will look at candidates to be head coach, aiming to appoint one at the start of 2023 – an appropriately significant way to start a significant year.

“This is a unique opportunity for a sports club in Australia – football will be the undisputed No 1 sport from grassroots to the elite on the coast for males and females,” Mielekamp said.

“It’s taken a while, but now we can offer the best academy process for any female athlete. And just like we’ve been able to develop a stream of Socceroos, we want to have a stream of Matildas come out of our academy and our Liberty A-League team.”

In season 2022-23, you can listen to Robbie weekly on his new KEEPUP podcast – The Players Pod, with Robbie Cornthwaite. He chats to Chris Ikonomidis and and Craig Goodwin for the debut episode. Listen below or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.