Zoom call that led a Bielsa pupil who grew up with Harry Kewell to take over the Mariners 

We preview Central Coast Mariner's Round 7 clash against Western United in the Isuzu UTE A-League.

From the Premier League to the Central Coast, Mark Jackson has crossed paths with some of world football’s biggest names on his journey to becoming Mariners head coach and has had more than a couple of ‘sliding doors’ moments along the way. The Mariners boss speaks to aleagues.com.au’s James Dodd.

Very few burgeoning young coaches get the chance to pick the brain of one world football’s most respected coaches on a weekly basis. However Mark Jackson has and he certainly earned the right, and the trust, of the world renowned Marcelo Bielsa.

“In the early stages it was kind of me watching from afar,” recalls Jackson when discussing his former role as an academy coach under Bielsa at Leeds United. “The opportunity for me to really learn came when I got the chance to manage the U23s.

“When I stepped up, the U23s were mirroring the first team. I got told that Marcelo (Bielsa) had to approve all of that as well so that was a real plus for me that he was willing to have someone from the club progress and move into that role.

“I said to one of his staff, has any English coach ever worked this closely with him and they said no.”

After returning to English football’s top flight after 16 years away, Bielsa’s side lit up the Premier League at times with their brand of vibrant, attacking football and Jackson was the man tasked with ensuring the Argentinian coach’s methods trickled down through the club.

“He would talk to me, we’d have meetings and he’d explain things. He tasked me with transmitting his methodology all the way through the academy.”

Bielsa would later be relieved of his duties at Leeds but the impact Jackson was making at the club had clearly not gone unnoticed, as he was then promoted to First Team Coach following the arrival of American Jesse Marsch.

“I had a really good relationship with Jesse,” said Jackson. “He was very different to Marcelo – I describe them as both extremes of football. Marcelo with his man-to-man system and certain style of play and adaptation.

“Jesse was more the ‘Red Bull’ kind of philosophy and that philosophy is more ball-orientated than man-orientated. So very vertical and transitional.”

But after helping his boyhood club avoid relegation in May 2022 it wouldn’t be long before Jackson swapped the dizzying heights of the Premier League for his first role as a head coach with League One side MK Dons, but he certainly left with his former boss’s blessing.

“I value him completely as a person and as a football mind,” said Jesse Marsch at the time of Jackson’s departure to Stadium MK. “Jacko has been an absolute asset for me from the first day that I set foot into the building.”

Inheriting a club languishing at the foot of the table, the 46-year-old would ultimately fail in his attempts to stave off relegation and MK Dons opted to part ways with Jackson after just five months in charge.

However football has a funny way of bringing people together.

During the COVID lockdown of 2020, Jackson was still coaching the U18s at Leeds and was asked by a former colleague if he’d take part in a zoom session on player development for the football staff at Wollongong Wolves.

“So we did a webinar and Monty (Nick Montgomery) was on it,” explained Jackson.

“He stayed on afterwards and we connected and started chatting about player development because Monty has a big passion for that.

“We kept each other’s number and we kept in touch. We had Zoom calls and chats about things and how things were going, his experiences, my experiences.”

In fact, the friendship between the two coaches had grown to such a level that Jackson actually tuned in to watch his mate guide the Mariners to last season’s A-League championship while on vacation.

“I was on holiday at the time. I was watching it on my phone and I couldn’t get a signal by the pool and I’m looking at all these goals going in thinking what the….”

That Grand Final success ultimately saw Montgomery headhunted by Scottish Premiership side Hibernian, but, before he left the Central Coast, Montgomery advised Jackson to apply for his old job.

A few sleepless nights and one 6am Zoom interview later, Jackson had done enough to persuade the Mariners’ hierarchy that he was the right man to take the club forward and he now finds himself overseeing both an A-League title defence as well as the club’s first group stage campaign in Asian competition since 2014.

But, while this may be Jackson’s first experience of life in Australian football, the former Leeds United centre-half certainly has plenty of experience when it comes to dealing with Australian footballers.

Growing up a Leeds fan and living a stones throw away from Elland Road, Jackson worked his way through the ranks at his boyhood club and was joined in the mid-90s by a young Australian by the name of Harry Kewell.

“I was a second year YTS (Youth Training Scheme) he came over as a first year, he came over with Brett Emerton,” remembers Jackson. “I was making my debut at a similar time to Harry.

“He came over and you could see from the start he was a really, really good player. A really confident lad.

He continued: “He was a left-back when he first came and he developed into that more attacking role as he went along. I was close to Harry, we used to spend time off the pitch as well.”

The duo enjoyed some good times at Elland Road but also endured some difficult ones as well, most notably surviving an aeroplane crash in 1998 at London’s Stansted Airport in what was another one of life’s sliding doors moments.

The Leeds United squad were travelling back from an away defeat to West Ham when one of the plane’s engines exploded as the wheels were leaving the tarmac, forcing the pilot to perform an emergency landing in a move that saved the lives of those onboard.

While Kewell would go on to win some of the game’s biggest trophies, both players would eventually swap the pitch for the dugout, becoming coaches in their own right, with Jackson revealing he got in touch with his old teammate not too long ago.

“I first reconnected with Harry when he went to Oldham as a manager as he took one of our players on loan from Leeds who I had. So we reconnected then.

“He hasn’t changed one bit,” laughed Jackson. “He’s still full of it… in the nicest possible way! Football is a big world but it’s a small world as well.

“You might lose touch with someone but when you reconnect with them it’s like being back in the old days and you have a lot of similar things to talk about.”

Central Coast Mariners v Western United
Friday, December 8 2023
Industree Group Stadium
Kick-off: 7:45pm (AEDT)
Broadcast: Paramount+