One word sums up this Mariners fairy tale & it’s taken 15 years to instill

A team full of local products has re-established its link with the fans, writes Tom Smithies at Industree Group Stadium.

As they streamed through the gates of Industree Group in the hours before kick off, the nervous anticipation hanging in the air like static electricity, the Mariners faithful were handed posters to wave, carrying a single word: Believe.

Finally, a decade after they last reached a grand final and 15 years after the last time this stadium rocked at capacity, the citizens of the Central Coast have reason to believe again. A team of local kids on the pitch has inspired and re-engaged a generation of local kids off it. Now they have one more hurdle to overcome and bring a piece of silverware back to Gosford.

These are nights where fleeting moments calcify into the memories of a lifetime. At one of the A-Leagues’ most perfectly formed venues, 20,059 fans crammed in to see a new generation of heroes in yellow shirts seal the semi final deal. It’s been a long time between celebratory drinks for the Mariners fan base.

In fact it’s tempting to remember the frenetic atmosphere of the semi final defeat of Newcastle on this turf in 2008 in faded colours, because it seems such a long time ago. That epic night, when a crowd of 19,112 watched the Mariners overcome a 2-0 deficit and win 3-2 on aggregate to reach the grand final, was a high point the club has struggled since to get anywhere near.

Even in 2013, when Graham Arnold’s side went on to actually win the title, the semi final with Melbourne Victory drew a crowd of 10,651, and the allure since then has diminished by the year as the team slid down the table.

Montgomery understands that as well as anyone, because he was part of the squad that won the league under Arnold, and then watched in dismay as the legacy of that season was squandered.

Sasho Petrovski and Adam Kwasnik after winning the Major Semi Final against Newcastle in 2008.

“I think 15,000 was probably the most I played in front of here and it was (still) a great atmosphere,” Montgomery said after watching his side end a decade’s absence from the grand final. “Then the crowds dwindled because the form dwindled. When you’re bottom of the league, no one comes to watch, let’s be honest.

“It was sad and I was part of it, but as a player you can’t make decisions. I had the success and then I saw the club fail, coaches come in and whinge about the budget. ‘This club can’t compete with the big teams’, numerous coaches said that, but I never believed that because I came from a working class background where if you put your faith in the young people, they’ll give you everything back.”

And how. The stream of talent that Montgomery nurtured in the academy has flowered into a team that its fans can identify with and feel a connection to. That identity was crucial to the engagement that Lawrie McKinna created with the community in the club’s early years, where the players would eat communal dinners at the bowling club next to the stadium at the same tables as their fans.

You could feel a reprise of that belief encircling the stadium before kick off tonight, those same fans so excited to be back in the stadium on a night when their team was on the brink of something so special.

Mariners players and fans celebrate victory in the 2013 semi final against Melbourne Victory.

In a marquee tent in the shadows of the stadium, sponsors and corporate types listened to a panel including Andre Gumprecht – a midfielder whose work rate and application personified the squad in the club’s early years, a group of players that advanced to two grand finals in the club’s first three seasons.

Even now Gumprecht kept referring to the club as “us” and “our”, a sense of belonging that for many of the fans has frayed over the last decade. Danny Vukovic understands how important it is to renew that link; from a tyro goalkeeper in that first squad under McKinna to becoming the team’s elder statesman and captain. 

“It’s so true, I’m buzzing for everyone, the fans included,” Vukovic said after watching his side write a fresh chapter of club history. “They’ve been through some tough years at the Mariners, when I was playing elsewhere.

“I was playing at Sydney FC and they were really struggling. So it’s a night like tonight that they deserve, for sticking by the club and remaining loyal to us.

“It was just an amazing night, I think 20,000 people won’t forget this night very soon. It’s huge, a lot of these kids will definitely be inspired by the likes of (Jacob) Farrell. There’s pathways now for those young kids to get into the academy and then move on.

“It’s great to see so many young guys doing well and see that belief grow throughout the season as the captain. Now we’re one game away from creating history.

“I’m just over the moon for everyone involved, not just the players, not just the coaches, but all the staff behind the scenes.

“Everyone works tirelessly to run the club and a night like tonight is just reward for all those people and all their hard work.”

There is still one more chapter to write of this season, of course, and this team must win a trophy to be put on the same pedestal as the 2013 vintage. But there is a far wider project at play, the reinvigoration of a club and the re-inspiration of its fans, which promises even greater rewards in the weeks and months beyond the Grand Final.

Montgomery can see that and feel it. “I said to the boys, you’ve galvanised a club, a community and a region,” he said.