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Central Coast Mariners analysis, how they went from wooden spoon regulars to top of the league, Alen Stajcic

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The A-League’s worst team of recent seasons – and arguably Australian sport’s worst team of the last half-decade – is suddenly taking the competition by storm.

And that’s despite a shoestring budget, an owner desperately hoping to sell the franchise, and a history of off-field woes to match years of dismal fortunes on the park.

No wonder their coach is now being heralded as a miracle worker.

The Central Coast Mariners on Tuesday night claimed a stunning 2-1 away win over heavyweights Perth Glory, beating a side in record-breaking goalscoring form in one of the toughest road trips in the league.

The result sees the NSW side assert itself atop the A-League ladder, having won four from the last five games and seven from 10.

Here’s how coach Alen Stajcic revitalised one of the roughest gems in Australian sport.

Mariners continue golden run of form | 02:42

THE POISONED CHALICE OF AUSSIE SPORT

The Mariners have claimed four of the last five A-League wooden spoons. They haven’t reached the finals since 2013/14, finishing in the bottom three in the only two seasons they managed to avoid rock bottom.

Their results in that period are nothing short of dismal.

In 2015-16, they managed just 13 points in 27 matches, conceding 70 goals in that period and not recording a single clean sheet. The record was identical in 2018-19: 13 points, 70 goals conceded.

In 2018, they conceded eight goals to bitter rivals Newcastle Jets. In March 2019, another 8-2 defeat, this time to Wellington Phoenix. Last season, they went on an 11-game losing run, an equal record in A-League history.

They burned through five managers in as many years, while owner Mike Charlesworth desperately tried to sell the club – something he is still pursuing. In that period, the club more often spent the salary cap minimum on wages than the maximum allowed. And, of course, there was that humiliating time where Usain Bolt tried his hand at football.

In short, the Mariners became arguably the worst professional club in Australian sport over this period.

It was a remarkable disintegration of one of the league’s top sides. A side that had finished in the top three of the league in each of the prior four seasons, that had claimed its first Grand Final win in 2012, and had become a production line for Socceroos.

World Cup qualifying gets centralised | 00:33

THE FAIRYTALE CLUB

When the Mariners were announced as one of the eight inaugural A-League teams in 2004, many expected the small regional club to fail.

Sandwiched by the bigger markets of Newcastle and Sydney, the Mariners had a mere 350,000 fans in their region to draw on. Finances were a concern from day one.

But the club took its greatest weakness – its regional nature – and turned it into its greatest strength.

Community was at the core of its identity. The team – the region’s only professional team of any code – was fighting for the locals, fighting for recognition against the ‘bigger’ clubs from the cities. The coast’s small-town mentality permeated every level of the club, forged the kind of unity and dogged determination that drove them to success.

In the competition’s debut season, they defied all expectations as their low-budget squad finished runners up to big-money Sydney FC with past and future Premier League star Dwight Yorke at its helm.

After reaching the maiden Grand Final by beating Premiers Adelaide, Mariners coach Lawrie McKinna labelled his side: “The Hansel and Gretel of the game.”

“It is fairytale stuff for sure,” he said. “No one expected us to get in to the top four, let alone the Grand Final at the start of the season. But we have kept producing the results and making a mockery of all the predictions.”

That could be applied word-for-word this season.

The similarities run even deeper.

McKinna said in ‘06: “When someone is struggling they’ll do the hard yards and put their body on the line for their mates.

“But it’s not just that we go out there and work hard for each other – we do that – but the end result is that we play good attacking football.”

Togetherness and tactical nous: it’s the same blueprint behind Stajcic’s radical revival of the Mariners.

Archie wraps up a wild week | 09:39

THE MATILDAS’ EXILE

Stajcic arrived at the Mariners in controversial fashion in 2019. He was shockingly axed as coach of the Matildas in January of that year, months out from a World Cup in which the Australian women’s team figured as serious contenders after Stajcic had guided them to a record-high ranking of fourth in the world.

From one of Australia’s greatest teams to one of the nation’s worst.

After taking over as caretaker at the back end of the 2018-19 season, he overhauled the squad ahead of the new season. He soon led the Mariners to the semi-finals of the FFA Cup, forcing the league to sit up and take notice – only for the side to collapse to a record-equalling 11 consecutive league defeats and another wooden spoon.

Stajcic kept his job – barely – but his cup run appeared nothing more than a flash in a pan, another brief moment of joy for the long-suffering Central Coast fans.

Now the Mariners are top of the league, and appear every bit the real deal.

The Mariners have surged to the top of the A-League.Source: Getty Images

RETURN TO THE MARINERS’ IDENTITY

At the end of last season, the Mariners lost a host of their best players. Milan Djuric, their top scorer. Former Socceroo Tommy Oar joined A-League newcomers Macarthur. Influential defender Ziggy Gordon went to the Wanderers. Two players went to India. Promising starlet Samuel Silvera went to Portugal, another young gun to Poland. All in all, 12 players departed: another complete overhaul.

But for the first time in years, the Mariners recruited superbly. Oliver Bozanic, who had won the league with the Mariners in 2013 before a decorated stint overseas, was stuck down under due to COVID-19. He signed on the dotted line when the Scottish season was canned.

Daniel Bouman, a promising Olyroos star, also joined after COVID-19 ended the Dutch second-division and left him club-less.

Just as importantly, Stajcic managed to stave off rival interest in the talented youngsters he had baptised in fire the season prior.

Youngsters like Alou Kuol, a teenager who has six goals already this season. That’s more than any Mariners player managed last campaign.

Kuol, 19, has played in every game, but has come on as a substitute six times – arguably one of the most impressive, influential substitutes in the game. He is a statistical beast: for every 90 minutes he plays, he averages 3.29 shots on target, and 1.64 goals and assists combined. Both are league-leading.

Teen sensation Alou Kuol.Source: Getty Images

Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City passed on Sudanese-born Kuol despite the high praise of a scout. The Mariners Academy did not. After a year in youth competition, he played a handful games for the Mariners senior side at the end of last season and was handed a scholarship deal. A professional contract is reportedly on its way, and his 16-year-old brother Garang has also been signed by the youth Academy.

Other youngsters, like Bouman (23), Josh Nisbet (21), Lewis Miller (20), Jaden Casella (20), Stefan Nigro (24) and Ruon Tongyik (24) have all impressed.

Not since the club’s golden age a decade ago has such a promising array of young talents been at a Mariners coach’s disposal – or at least, not without being quickly poached by rival teams before the Mariners could get the best out of them.

Under the management of current Socceroos boss Graham Arnold from 2010-2013, the Mariners finished second, first, second, then third in the league ladder. They reached two grand finals, winning one. In that era, the league’s minnows were giants.

Graham turned the team into a factory for Socceroos, polishing rough youngsters into genuine stars and reaping the benefits on the field.

The list of Socceroos who emerged during that period is incredible: Mile Jedinak, Mat Ryan, Trent Sainsbury, and Tom Rogic are just the start. There’s Danny Vukovic and Alex Wilkinson, or Oliver Bozanic, Mitch Duke, Bernie Ibini, Mustafa Amini, Matt Simon.

They would learn their trade at the Mariners, then depart to bigger things – often overseas, and for significant transfer fees which shored up the bottom line of the cash-strapped Central Coast club.

For example, Rostyn Griffiths went to Chinese club Guangzhou City in 2012 for a league-record $1.3 million.

Just like those halcyon days, Stajcic is prioritising youth – the kind of flashy young talents which excite fans as much with their boundless on-field energy as their personality off the pitch.

Late flag DEVASTATES JMac | 00:44

THE KEYS TO THEIR NEWFOUND SUCCESS

Remember McKinna’s description of his ‘fairytale’ 2006 side? “They’ll do the hard yards and put their body on the line for their mates … but the end result is that we play good attacking football.”

That’s as good an explanation as any of Stajcic’s success.

He said after their win over Perth this week: “You can see how much the players are fighting for each other … The resilience and courage tonight is an example of how unified the group really are, and that’s full credit to every single person in our whole club.”

But that mentality has been married by significant tactical changes that have got the Mariners playing ‘good attacking football’.

In 10 games this season, they already have seven wins – two more than the entirety of last season.

Last season, the side had the second-highest rate of crosses per game, behind their also-struggling rival Newcastle Jets. That strategy of bombing balls into the box has ended. They now boast the second-lowest rate of crosses in the league (an average of around nine crosses less per match!). The days of attackers sprinting after long ball after long ball has also ended, which has seen them go from having the third most offsides to third least.

Instead, they play more creatively, get the ball in better positions, and have significantly increased their number of shots, and shots on target, per game. The result is more goals.

On the defensive end, they’ve also improved. They’re keeping opponents out of the most dangerous areas – including through the improved use of tactical fouls – and are a physically tougher side.

Those factors have seen them commit on average the most fouls in the league, compared to eighth in the league last year. And yet, they’re hardly earning more yellow or red cards.

And despite all the talk about the role of substitutions this season after FIFA changed the rules in the wake of coronavirus, the Mariners only sit mid-range in the competition in terms of how many substitutions they use, and when they use them. In fact, there is remarkable consistency across the squad, with nine players having appeared in all ten games.

And now they sit top – a world away from the pain of years past.

Alen Stajcic has been labelled a ‘magician’.Source: Getty Images

THE MIRACLE MAN

Rival coach Mark Rudan of Western United said recently: “It’s funny (reporters) mentioned (the Mariners are) walking on water because right now you’d think Alen Stajcic is Jesus – because he’s done a fantastic job with them.

“We all know the fantastic job that he did with the Matildas as well.

“He’s a magician as far as I’m concerned, he’s turned the place around again.”

But Stajcic denied that.

“There’s no magic,” he said. “The magic is hard work.”

Hard work and a return to the Mariners’ former identity.

Like he said in March of last year, half-way through the club’s record run of 11-straight defeats: “We are playing for the pride of the club and the team and the whole community so we are playing for much more than ourselves.”

That hasn’t changed. The nightmare finally might.

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