Rise & fall of the Central Coast Mariners: From ‘laughing stock’ to A-Leagues force

Central Coast Mariners legend Daniel McBreen joined The Players Pod ahead of this week’s Isuzu UTE A-League Semi Final second leg and charted the club’s rise back to the top of the A-League Men’s competition.

Central Coast Mariners are only 90 minutes away from ending a 10 year Isuzu UTE A-League Grand Final drought.

Nick Montgomery’s side head into this weekend’s blockbuster Semi Final second leg – arguably the biggest game the Mariners have played since the 2013 decider – with one foot inside the big dance after coming away from Coopers Stadium with a 2-1 advantage over Adelaide United.

Only a few years ago, playing in a Grand Final seemed like a pipe dream. In fact, just making the finals felt miles away.

After the halcyon early years that yielded four Grand Final appearances, two Premierships and a Championship along with developing a cacophony of future Socceroos – Central Coast’s results nosedived between 2014 and 2021.

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The Mariners won only 26 games from 134, tallying 110 of a possible 483 points and won four wooden spoons. In back to back seasons, they were knocked out by NPL opposition in the Australia Cup. They went through five coaches, a litany of players and, at one point, handed a trial to Usain Bolt.

In the midst of their rut was a famous 4-1 defeat on New Year’s Eve in 2018, which was remembered for all the wrong reasons, including a broken net that delayed the game for 40 minutes and fireworks going off when play resumed.

Central Coast Mariners legend Daniel McBreen was a guest on this week’s edition of The Players Pod, where he was asked to identify the moment he felt the club hit rock bottom.

He singled out that night, which also saw him caught on a hot mic, saying: “Can I say it’s representative of the Mariners these days? F****** dogs***.”

In season 2022-23, you can listen to Robbie weekly on his new KEEPUP podcast – The Players Pod, with Robbie Cornthwaite. Listen below or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

“I think when I got caught calling them a few expletives was pretty low for everyone of us,” he said on The Players Pod, alongside Robbie Cornthwaite and Daniel Garb.

“That’s where you thought it couldn’t get any worse and consistently, year after year, you kept saying, It can’t get any worse… and it did…”

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At the time of McBreen’s comments, the Mariners had won only one of their last 28 games and the 4-1 defeat to the eventual premiers Perth took that number to 29.

The road back to the top started under the tutelage of Montgomery’s predecessor Alen Stajcic, who took the team from the wooden spoon to the finals the following year.

Youngsters such as Alou Kuol, Kye Rowles, Gianni Stensness, Lewis Miller and Josh Nisbet took enormous strides throughout that season, while the likes of Danny Da Silva, Matt Simon, Marco Urena and Mark Birighitti played enormous roles in leading the charge.

Stajcic departed the following season, paving the way for his assistant Montgomery to take over and continue the solid work put in place from top to bottom.

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Central Coast made the finals again last season and were runners up to Melbourne Victory in the 2022 Australia Cup, but their youth first focus saw more young stars break through including Alou’s brother Garang, Dan Hall and Jacob Farrell, while maverick Jason Cummings rejuvenated his career at the Mariners after a mid-season move.

However, after two straight Elimination Final exits, the Mariners went one step further, booking a spot in the Semi Finals as a result of a top-two finish with more players stamping their authority in the side even after the likes of the Kuol brothers, Rowles, Miller and Birighitti all departed.

More revelations came to the fore such as Brian Kaltak and Marco Tulio, while Cummings put in a career best season and earned a ticket to the Socceroos’ FIFA World Cup squad.

McBreen said the the club has gone from being the league’s “laughing stock” to becoming a force once more – singing the praises of CEO Shaun Mielekamp who helped the club through the dark times.

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“There’s been a lot of heartache between drinks, hasn’t there?” he said.

“We all know the history of the last seven years before these last couple (seasons), four wooden spoons, laughing stock… of the league and the club didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and if anything there was more talk about the club upping and moving somewhere else or going out of the league altogether.

“Now, one person who’s been there through all of that is is the CEO Shaun Mielekamp. I’ve got to take my hat off to him. He’s copped it on the chin for many a year. He copped a lot of abuse and ridicule while that was all going on but he always had an unwavering belief that they could turn it around and make it come good and it’s really come to fruition in the last three years.”

McBreen also feels that Montgomery’s work, that stretches back to the roots he put in place in the academy, has helped the club get back on track.

“He’s been there for 10 years now, came in as a player, and then worked his way through the academy, worked his way up and it really set,” he said.

“When you go back to those glory years of the Mariners, you talk about a culture and an environment and a family attitude, and we’re all in this together. I think Monty’s added that. Staj (Alen Stajcic) had brought that a little bit back but I think Monty (working) underneath when he was in that academy space, really started to get that back on track.

“Even to this day, you talk to people who are only under 16s and under 15s and Nick Montgomery’s facetiming them to say: ‘oh, you had a great game on the weekend’ and… not only do they see these young guys getting opportunities, but they feel like they’re a part of it as well.

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“These young kids can see well, there is a pathway and the head coach and the assistant coach of the first team are actually ringing us and messaging us, saying, ‘you’re doing well keep it up, keep going and you’ll get your opportunity in a few years if this keeps going’… You can feel that when you go in there now.

“It feels like this real family vibe around the club, everyone feels included… there’s a belief, the belief is back, that together this community can do something good.”

Now, with those days a thing of the past, McBreen believes the club’s forward thinking approach has helped them move on from a dark period in the team’s history.

“I’ve got to go back to, we’re talking about the past and how it (the team) was great and it went down and it’s come back. That’s not the mantra that’s going around at the moment,” he said.

“They’re not looking back anymore and Shaun Mielekamp is big on now saying ‘we’re looking forward’ and we’re now at a spot where we’re just looking forward.

“Yes, we celebrate the past and we and we also look at where we went wrong but let’s look forward and say how great this club can be and how we can keep forging and making it better.

“I think that’s telling as well that so much has been made of these last ten years of the Mariners. Ok, we’ve done that, we’ve addressed it, we’ve seen it, we’ve changed now and we’re on the up and let’s look to where we can actually go to rather than where we’ve been and I quite like that.”