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Spirit of the Game: Is this Mariners side the best Australia has seen?

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Central Coast Mariners - The catholic Weekly
Danny Vukovic (centre) and teammates lift the Premiers plate after winning their A-League Men Round 25 match between the Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United at Industree Group Stadium in Gosford, Wednesday, 1 May, 2024. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

The 2023/24 Central Coast Mariners are making their case as one of Australia’s all-time greatest footballing teams. Should they be crowned A-League champions in a few weeks’ time, it might be hard to argue otherwise.

As the A-League finals series got underway last weekend, the competition favourites made the most of their week off by making history.

The Gosford outfit ended Australia’s 10-year trophy drought across Asian club competitions during the early hours of Monday morning when they won the AFC Cup in Oman in the dying moments of the final against Lebanese side Al Ahed.

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The second trophy in as many weeks, the Mariners were fresh from taking home the A-League Premier’s Plate just four days earlier as they edged out a similarly impressive Wellington Phoenix for top honours in the final round of the season.

It’s the first time in 12 years the Central Coast have finished a season top of the table.

The small community club, now $2.3 million richer after their heroics in the Middle East, are just three games (at the time of writing) away from a second successive A-League Championship and a treble-winning season never before seen in Australian football.

But it won’t just be a potential trio of trophies that cement the Mariners as one of the sports best teams—it will be the way they won them.

You only need to go as far back as 2020 to remember the club’s dark days. Four wooden spoons in five seasons made the Mariners the most forgettable team in the country.

Laden with ownership and managerial dramas and a dwindling fanbase, all signs pointed to the imminent and ugly end for a team considered the laughing stock of not just Australian football, but Australian sport.

Since then, the turnaround of this small club has been nothing short of remarkable.

In the last few years, we witnessed an overhaul of players and club staff on-field, while intelligent tactics off the field saw the Mariners make wise outside signings and invest into its youth teams as improved players moved on.

It’s a relatively simple concept when you summarise it into one sentence, but certainly not as easy to execute.

Their rise back to the top is the result of that perfectly executed blueprint.

A similar style has also borne fruit for Wellington this season, proving the formula isn’t an anomaly.

While the New Zealand side simultaneously enjoy their own rise following similar years of misery, the Mariners’ dramatic recent history makes their tale an even sweeter one.

Their title defence began without their title-winning coach Nick Montgomery and more than five core players (including their hat-trick hero in last years final, Jason Cummings).

Signs were worrying when new coach Mark Jackson, appointed less then a month before the season started, began it with four straight losses.

In a stunning turn, the team would then go on to lose only another two, draw four and win an astonishing 17 games.

All that in a season where they’ve also travelled more than 100,000km in economy class to compete internationally in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and most recently, Oman.

Not bad for the little engine that could.

It’s certainly more than enough to put them into the debate for one of the greatest Australian sides, but are they the greatest?

It’s hard not to consider Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar team, the first to win two consecutive A-League championships.

While Ange is now a household name in the English Premier League with Tottenham, we can’t forget his first top-flight Australian side, whose 36-game unbeaten streak is still impressive to this day.

Even more impressive is Sydney FC’s team that dominated the A-League’s mid-2010s with three championships in four seasons.

They hold an incredible 52 wins, 15 draws and only nine losses across those three winning years, including just one loss in the entire 2016/17 season (thank God for the Western Sydney Wanderers who humbled our cross-city rivals).

But Brisbane and the commanding Sydney team which terrorised the A-League for so long did very little outside of their domestic triumphs, barely making a dent in Asia. The Central Coasts’ AFC Cup win on Monday changes things.

The success of a small community club known for sandy beaches and sauce bottle mascots on the national and international stage screams a classic tale of triumph. Think Leicester City’s 2015/16 EPL fairytale or Greece’s 2004 Euro heroics.

Not only are the Mariners own fans cheering them on, but every Australian football fan. No other club has ever won the A-League Premiership and Championship and an Asian Trophy in the same season.

Win it all, and the Mariners become the poster boy for the possibilities of what football can truly be in this country.

The only thing now standing between this Central Coast team and their status as possibly the greatest Australian team is the famed toilet seat.

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