The Mariners story ‘that hasn’t been told’: A ‘gravity-defying’ feat unseen in Aussie history

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Ahead of this weekend’s Isuzu UTE A-League Grand Final, Aussie football legend Andy Harper speaks to about where Mark Jackson’s Central Coast Mariners would rank among the best teams assembled in Australian men’s national league history if they were to win.

The Network 10 commentator also ponders what a Grand Final triumph over Melbourne Victory in Gosford would mean to Central Coast’s long-suffering fans, who are now basking in the glittering glow of a trophy-laden and glorious period of the club’s history.

Central Coast Mariners are on the cusp of a trophy treble no club in Australian national league history has ever achieved – and the context behind their achievements both domestically and in Asia is a story of unwavering self-belief, persistence and durability.

Mark Jackson’s Mariners have won the Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership and the AFC Cup title – now, they’re on the hunt for back-to-back domestic Championships.

Ahead of Saturday’s Isuzu UTE A-League Grand Final at Industree Group Stadium, Andy Harper was asked to speak to the gravity of Central Coast’s achievements this season.

Harper described Jackson’s Mariners as ‘gravity-defying’.

A team that, when all is said and done on Saturday night, could lay claim to the tag of the best team Australian men’s national league football has ever seen.

“There are a few different ways to measure best-ever performances,” Harper said.

“Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar established a new way of club football to be played in Australia, and that’s yet to be bettered in my opinion – but that’s one way of measuring.

“What the Mariners are on the cusp of achieving is clearly another way of measuring the greatest-ever performance which I think is theirs to be earned if they win on the weekend.”

“This achievement would be more than the sum of their parts. Because the sum of their parts is three trophies, which is a huge effort in its own right, but why that achievement would be bigger than the sum of those parts is because of what they had to do to get there. Primarily, the reference there is the travel around Asia for the AFC Cup.

“To think that these guys, without a lot of squad rotation, have flown the equivalent of three times around the planet in economy class, through time zones, having to get back and then be the best team in Australia after 27 rounds, it’s going to take some beating.

“That’s why I say the three trophies is massively significant, but this achievement is actually greater than the sum of those parts.”

After Grand Final victory last season, the Mariners lost their coach Nick Montgomery and were gutted by off-season transfers.

In came Mark Jackson as Montgomery’s replacement and the rookie A-Leagues coach oversaw four consecutive league defeats to begin his reign – the worst start to a season from any reigning Champion in the competition’s history.

What’s followed has been nothing short of remarkable.

The Mariners have lost just two of 25 league games since that run of four defeats on the road to clinch the Premiers Plate and book a home Grand Final against Melbourne Victory – all the while, they grappled with the hectic travel demands of a run to victory in the AFC Cup Final.

The Mariners travelled more than 100,000 kilometres in pursuit of AFC Cup glory, from Indonesia to the Philippines, India, Kyrgyzstan and Oman, with every trip abroad requiring a return leg to continue their quest for domestic glory.

Jackson’s side won the A-League Men Premiership and AFC Cup Final in the space of four days in early May; Harper says a combination of mental and physical fortitude has brought the Mariners to the brink of the treble that would solidify the team’s claim to legendary status in Australian football history.

“Four games into the season they were nowhere near being in the discussion,” he said.

“What’s to be admired about the Mariners’ season so far is the physical side of this is one thing. The football, tactical side of this is another thing. The players, to have maintained the emotional, and psychological focus required to be that consistent under this amount of pressure is really quite remarkable.

“It would be wrong not to acknowledge the achievement of Western Sydney Wanderers in winning the Asian Champions League, the premium competition. That’s to be hugely heralded as well. The premium Asian competition – that stands on its own as an outstanding achievement.

“But the Wanderers weren’t able to win the comp domestically at the same time, unfortunately for them. The Mariners have.

“And here’s the other kicker: it’s the smallest club with the smallest budget in the league. If ever a team has defied gravity, it’s Mark Jackson’s Central Coast Mariners. A completely gravity-defying performance.”

Jackson arrived in the off-season as a manager not accustomed to life in the Isuzu UTE A-League. With his appointment, the club stuck with its method of entrusting coaches unproven at the top level in Australian men’s football.

First it was Alen Stajcic who took on the top job at an Isuzu UTE A-League club for the very first time in 2019 – he took the Mariners from 10th to 3rd in his first full season.

Stajcic’s departure led to Montgomery’s jump from head of the club’s academy to head coach; Montgomery’s Mariners finished fifth, then second, and ended last season with the club’s second Championship trophy.

Now, after overseeing the worst start to a Championship defence in Isuzu UTE A-League history, Jackson has the chance to achieve what no manager in the league has managed before.

“But what hasn’t been acknowledged enough,” says Harper, “is the role of Chairman Richard Peil.”

Peil became the majority shareholder at the Mariners in 2022, taking control from former owner Mike Charlesworth who brought Stajcic to the club and appointed Nick Montgomery before his exit.

“When the bright lights of the UK attracted Montgomery away from the Central Coast, it was the unheralded work behind the scenes, led by Richard Peil and the (former) CEO Shaun Mielekamp,” Harper said.

“That story hasn’t been told. Mark Jackson doesn’t end up in the job writing his own chapters without being given the job.

“We know recruitment is a big part of how successful clubs can be. Richard Peil and Shaun Mielekamp… I don’t know the balance between the two and who did what, but just an umbrella acknowledgement of both, to lead us to this juncture where the Central Coast Mariners are on the cusp of writing the most remarkable story.

“Their identification of the necessary talent is clearly A1 standard. The environment the players then enter, hungry players and obviously good players, it’s a very, very potent mesh. 

“The third aspect of what we’re talking about is the reflection on the state in which the Mariners found themselves not long ago.

“Four out of five wooden spoons they won. The club that was on death’s door, literally, looking for maybe a new home, a new base, a new area. A license holder (Mike Charlesworth) who was very keen to explore relocating the team. And from that backdrop, all this has happened.

“It’s incredible – and this is not the end of the road for the Mariners. This is just the start of what a brilliant future this club can have. The response of the football department, supported by long-suffering fans, this is not the end of the road, this is just the start of it.

“Imagine where we’d be if they decided against what should have been done, do move out of Gosford?” 

Thankfully for Mariners fans, they don’t have to imagine that reality. Their team is on the Central Coast, and for the very first time, will vie for an Isuzu UTE A-League Championship at home, in Gosford, at Industree Group Stadium.

The decision to reverse a three-year deal to stage all A-Leagues Grand Finals in Sydney has restored what Harper defines as “a brilliant point of difference” Australia and New Zealand’s premier football league has over rival codes.

“I don’t think it can be underestimated,” he said. “The whole Grand Final discussion, which went in a direction no one foresaw and certainly nobody advocated for outside of decision makers, has just brought home into very clear view what a wonderful institution the Grand Final is, hosted by the most meritorious team.

“This is unique in Australian sport. It’s a brilliant point of difference. And what it does, apart from being a point of difference, apart from rewarding the team that has been superior over the course of the journey, it rewards the fans.

“This will last forever in the Mariners’ memory, and if they win, these are experiences money can’t buy. This is a fan being able to watch their team based on merits earned, to win the national competition. That’s a feeling they can revisit every time they walk into that stadium from that point forward. That is worth a lot more than anything can be planned for.”