Aus Football Review

Last update: March 05, 2006, at 01:34 AM

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2005-2006 A-League Grand Final Preview

Grand Final Introduction (Page 1)
Sydney FC Season Review (Page 2)
Expected Line-ups and Key Men (Page 4)

Central Coast Mariners – A season in retrospect

"The Hansel and Gretel of the game", Central Coast Mariners coach Lawrie Mc Kinna called his team after defeating premiers Adelaide United to progress to the Grand Final. "It is fairytale stuff for sure. 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."

Vukovic carries O'Sullivan after reaching the Grand Final

Considering the obstacles the Mariners have had to overcome throughout this season, Mc Kinna is fully entitled to call his team's journey to the Grand Final a fairytale. To say it was a fortunate or undeserved one, however, would be far off the mark.

One of the main trademarks of the Central Coast’s season has been their regular encounter with injuries. To start with and most notably, leading striker Nick Mrdja – scorer of six goals in eight Club World Championship playoff and pre-season appearances preceding the A-League – was out for the entire season just before it began in what appeared to be a major blow.

Despite this, the season began in a positive manner with a 1-0 away win at Perth Glory. It was a match which would foreshadow much of the Central Coast’s season. Mrdja’s finishing was noticeably missed as the Central Coast failed to convert a number of clear chances, but it was made up for fairly readily; “We picked boys who we knew or had good character references,” says Mc Kinna. “They get on well off the park and they get on brilliantly on the park and 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.” It is a message well worth pointing out, for the continuous “workmanlike” description of the Mariners in media circles – made even after progressing to the Grand Final – may tend to cloud judgements. The performance in Perth, the first of theirs fully televised, also signalled to attentive watchers nationwide a well drilled, smart and cohesive attacking game that would make the Mariners the most attractive team to watch throughout the season, and a rather capable and multi-dimensional one at that.

The Central Coast’s journey to the finals was far from steady, however. A memorable last-minute (although somewhat fortunate) 3-2 away win over local rivals Sydney FC was preceded the week before by an inexplicable 0-2 home loss to the New Zealand Knights, in what turned out to be the Kiwi’s only win of the entire season. The Mariners were unable to win at home until their fourth attempt in round eight, but what a performance it was; a 4-0 home thumping of Perth Glory, with all four goals constructed and finished beautifully.

So, although the Central Coast was showing enough promise to have a meaningful season, inconsistency reigned supreme early on. Then things took a turn for the worse.

A last-minute 0-1 away loss in Newcastle in round eight seemed harmless enough, but it was the start of the particularly rough time of it for the Central Coast. A somewhat retributory, but all-the-same customary win away in New Zealand followed before two losses to Sydney FC (1-5) and Adelaide United (1-2); both at home and hugely demoralising (the former for the score line, the latter for leading until the last several minutes). After the heartbreaking loss to Adelaide, the Central Coast lied in seventh and second-bottom place with less than half of the league left.

It was, it should be said, not such a deserved predicament. Key central defender Michael Beauchamp was unfairly sent-off early for an innocuous last-man foul inside the penalty area against Sydney with the score line at 0-0, and he was consequently unavailable for the Adelaide clash. In it, the Mariners were again the victims of poor officiating after they had a goal incorrectly disallowed while 1-0 up.

Nonetheless, the Central Coast evidently had on-field problems. Ten of the eighteen goals they had conceded after twelve rounds came in the last third of matches and it had become a costly habit, with four of their five defeats involving the Mariners going into a deficit during this latter period in matches. Worse still, Tom Pondeljak – Mrdja’s first-choice replacement – was out for two months after being badly injured in New Zealand.

It was from here on in that the Central Coast really stood up to be counted, despite the difficult circumstances. Mc Kinna replaced Pondeljak with John Hutchinson, a bench-warming midfielder at the start of the season, and the move paid sensational dividends with six goals in the following six matches from the makeshift striker. Along with this came the continued improvement and increasing confidence in Beauchamp and, in particular, young goalkeeper Danny Vukovic, the replacement of original number one John Crawley whose season ended due to injury after round five.

A comprehensive 4-1 home win over a pathetic Newcastle Jets in round sixteen made the Central Coast’s finals chances more probable than improbable. Along with this, Pondeljak and long-time injured reserve central defenders Paul O’Grady and Nigel Boogaard were available again to provide much-needed depth.

The extroadinary injury curse was to strike again and again however. In the space of two weeks, Hutchinson’s season was cruelly finished after badly damaging his left knee when falling awkwardly (but unchallenged) against Sydney FC, while reserve striker Adam Kwasnik was put out of action for a few weeks shortly after scoring an equalising goal (and having another incorrectly disallowed for offside, yet again) against Adelaide. Mc Kinna and the Central Coast’s supporters must not have known whether to have laughed or cried.

Despite these set-backs, the Mariners sustained their good form in the latter-half of the league campaign; captain and midfield anchor Noel Spencer continued to chip in with important goals, left-back scoring wonder Dean Heffernan ended his regular season goal tally at seven and durable veteran striker Stewart Petrie ended his at eight and finished equal top league scorer. A well-earned Minor Semi-Finals berth was achieved with a week to spare, and with three hard-fought finals matches successfully navigated, so too is a spot in the Grand Final.

Just how well do the Mariners match up to their local rivals in the Grand Final?

Sydney FC, being at home and with a strong line-up on paper, may be entitled to be called favourites, but they are not the only team possessing standout players heading into the Grand Final. In Michael Beauchamp and Danny Vukovic, the Mariners have the most promising and some of the most capable players of their respective positions in the country. Beauchamp is now a serious contender and the most likely A-League player to be selected for an Australian World Cup squad place in Germany, while Vukovic has gone from being the third-choice 2005 Under-20 Australian goalkeeper to a genuine Socceroos future prospect and would now be the second best goalkeeper in the league after Sydney’s Clint Bolton.

The Central Coast’s play going forward is of some concern. Mc Kinna rued his players’ poor final ball passing against Adelaide, and they have not, in all honesty, produced effective, sharp attacking play for the vast majority of a match’s duration for several weeks. Summer heat and finals nerves have obviously played their part but may have also disguised a recent relaxation of sorts from the players. Whatever the cause, Mc Kinna’s concentration on the final ball in training this week is well considered and timely.

Apart from this, the Mariners’ form heading into the Grand Final is exceptional; They have not lost for twelve matches (not since the round twelve crossroad against Adelaide) and have a goals-for/goals-against record of 21/11 in that period compared to 17/18 in their first twelve matches. In addition, their brave and resilient defensive effort against Adelaide in the Preliminary Final well and truly signified an end to their habit of letting in goals late on in matches, with the Central Coast not conceding goal in the last third of a match since round sixteen.

Instead, they now clearly appear to have a habit of pulling off the required result even while not playing particularly well; so often a characteristic among champion teams.

- Shane Davis

Grand Final Introduction (Page 1)
Sydney FC Season Review (Page 2)
Expected Line-ups and Key Men (Page 4)