The 'little' club that could

by John Davidson on Aug 24, 2012

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In all fairness, the Central Coast Mariners, the A-League’s smallest club, should have gone under years ago.

They have always been run on a shoestring budget, the tiniest in a competitiom of relatively little budgets. They represent the smallest area, spend less on players than other clubs and hail from a region that is historically not strong in football. To cap it off, they have faced ownership issues since day one, with fans waiting for the Russian cavalry, and play in one of the smallest arenas in Bluetongue Stadium.

They have always done it tough, battled for players and battled to stay alive. They are still battling today.

But despite all this they have not only remained afloat – they have thrived. Sure, they may not have won any grand finals but they have been in four, and only James Holland’s outstretched hand in 2008 and last gasp goals from the Brisbane Roar in 2011 have denied them. They have been minor premiers twice, second once and only missed the finals twice in seven seasons. The Mariners have legitimate claims of being the A-League’s most successful club.

The fact that they are still around today can be put down to the hard work of several people, including coaches Lawrie McKinna and Graham Arnold, chairman and owner Peter Turnbull, long-time CEO John McKay and Alex Tobin.

The Mariners have virtually been the blueprint for an A-League franchise – engage with the fans, connect with the local community and develop players. Despite the Central Coast having a population of around only 300,000, the Mariners get good crowds. They have built strong links with local football clubs and bodies. Their average attendance last season was 9,505, which ranked them fifth highest in the league. Sure, the Central Coast has no other professional sports teams, but it also had no history in professional football or of teams in the NSL.

The Mariners have had to build a football history from scratch and done a great job.

Consistency has been a big reason for the Mariners success. McKinna was in charge for a long time while Arnold has taken over where the Scotsman left. McKinna is back now as a GM of football, and continues his good work at the club. The Mariners have always had a fairly stable playing roster – the likes of Adam Kwasnik and John Hutchinson have been with the club since day one. And the boardroom also has longevity, as while Turnbull has had his issues to deal with, he and McKay have formed a solid and consistent management presence. Compare that to the likes of their bigger, southern neighbours Sydney FC.

As I have written before, the Mariners have been able to transplant much of the Northern Spirit NSL apparatus with some success. But arguably the biggest achievement the club has managed it its eight-year existence is its scouting, discovery and development of players. For a small and under-resourced outfit, the Mariners have punched above their weight when it comes to producing talent that go on to higher stages.

Think about it – Mile Jedinak, Michael Beachamp, Danny Vukovic, Dean Heffernan, Matt Ryan, Rostyn Griffiths, Musti Amini, Bernie Ibini and Tom Rogic, to name a few. It’s an impressive line-up of players who have either gone on to play for the Socceroos, overseas or in junior national teams. Developing players and selling them on has help kept them afloat and kept them competitive. But just how have they managed to finetune and improve young players to such a high degree?

According to head coach Arnold, it comes down to pairing them with the right type of senior players. The likes of Patrick Patrick Zvaansvijk and Alex Wilkinson have been excellent mentors, and the recent addition of Mile Sterjovski continues that trend. "We try and give confidence to the kids and a put a lot of work into them," Arnold says. "We get the right type of people around them. We always try and recruit senior players who encourage younger boys on the field, even if they do make a mistake. It's a good mix, a good blend."

Apart from Rogic and Ibini, the Mariners have a few more exciting youngsters to unleash on the A-League this season. One is central defender and Olyroo Zac Anderson, an addition from Gold Coast United. Another is fellow centre back Trent Sainsbury, a former Young Socceroo, and the promotions from the Mariner youth league side, midfielder Anthony Caceres and striker Mitchell Duke. Arnold expects Anderson and Sainsbury to battle it out for Alex Wilkinson’s vacant spot. “Trent has a lot of potential, and I have all the confidence in him and Zac Anderson,” Arnold says. The head coach likens Caceres to a “young Stuart Musialik”, and Duke, a fast and powerful forward, to former Mariner Matt Simon. “He’s rough and ready,” Arnold says.

Many pundits will write the Mariners off this season, with the loss of their captain and foundation player Wilkinson, and the forced sale of two players last season. There have been few new player additions, apart from Sterjovski, and Ryan may end moving to an English club. At the same time the likes of Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and others have been revamping their rosters and changing coaches. But write off the Central Coast at your own peril. Consistency has been at the heart of their success. The little club that could would love nothing more to fly under the radar and prove everyone wrong. They’ve been doing it for the past seven seasons, and I wouldn’t bet on them doing it again.