Once the whipping boys of the A-League, the Central Coast Mariners have become the competition’s fairytale as they sit on top of the ladder almost halfway through the season.
It’s a transformation that has been truly remarkable.
Going into their 2020-21 A-League campaign, the Mariners had finished last in four of the past five seasons.
There was no relegation from the A-League, but the Gosford-based club’s top-flight status was rightly being questioned.
The only interest the Mariners had generated in recent times had been giving the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, a shot at becoming a professional footballer in 2018.
And while it grabbed the club a few headlines, it merely papered over the cracks of a crumbling organisation.
Mike Mulvey, an A-League championship-winning coach, followed Bolt out the Mariners’ door four months later in March 2019, with his stint of less than a year in charge having done nothing to stop the rot.
Not since Graham Arnold, who took Central Coast to the title in 2013 before leaving the club later that year, had the Mariners found a coach that fitted the framework of the club.
Then came Alen Stajcic, who was looking for an opportunity to re-establish himself in football after his controversial departure from the Matildas in January 2019.
. @oliverbozanic and @NahuelArrarte came prepared for a wet session today 😂🥽#CCMFC#MCYvCCMpic.twitter.com/g6ME07FtSa
“The one thing that we had learnt over the years was what type of coach didn’t suit our club,” Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp said.
“We had changed dramatically in the different types of coaches we had here, and the lessons from that gave us a clear picture of the type of coach we needed at this club.
“`Staj’ was the instant fit to what we knew we needed, and the other component for us knowing we had to sign him on a multi-year deal and be prepared as a club to go through a tough period.
“We had to be brave as a club, not keep reacting, and not keep turning over coaches. That was part of the problem.”
And Mielekamp stayed strong, with the wooden spoon continuing to remain in the Mariners’ possession despite the appointment of Stajcic, who was given a three-year deal soon after his appointment as caretaker coach following Mulvey’s sacking.
Evidence of Stajcic’s effect became clearer during last year’s end-of-season hub when the Mariners lost just one of four matches and finished their campaign with a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Melbourne Victory.
While it couldn’t lift them off the bottom off the ladder, the Mariners’ end-of-season form suggested there were better days ahead.
Of those days, one of the best came in October last year when Socceroos midfielder Oliver Bozanic rejoined the club after seven seasons away.
Alen Stajcic has been the key to the Mariners’ revival. Picture: AAP Image/George SalpigtidisSource:AAP
Bozanic had trained with the club last season after returning home from the UK following the early end to his Scottish campaign with Hearts due to COVID-19.
“He was training with us, he was talking to the young ones … he was already having a positive influence at the end last season,” Mielekamp said.
“You could see the other boys lifting, raising their standards and following his leadership.
“That was the really exciting part, when we could really start to see there was a distinct shift in belief at the club. It was happening back then.”
But ahead of the Mariners visit to AAMI Park on Monday night to meet Melbourne City, for things to have progressed so far since the end of last season has even come as a shock to Mielekamp – to a degree.
“On one hand I’m as surprised as everybody but I’m probably the least surprised because I know how much hard work has gone into it,” he said.
“We’re trying not to get ahead of ourselves, and it’s going to become really embarrassing how clichéd we’re going to sound for a club that’s been so non-clichéd for so long, but we’re going to be talking about one game at a time … so let’s make sure we get down to Melbourne City and give a good account of ourselves.”
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