Why Central Coast Mariners problems start and finish at the top

Central Coast Mariners Source: AAP

It wouldn’t quite be an A-League season without the customary Central Coast Mariners bashing sessions among the Australian football community at large.

It’s become an unseemly annual tradition which is practised by fans and pundits alike ever since the club was dragged into a steep decline post the Graham Arnold era in 2013.

Over the weekend, the habitual bottom of the table battlers suffered their eighth consecutive loss of the season in front of just 3,773 fans.

Winless since January, coach Alen Stajcic called their performance “naive” but remained endearingly optimistic in the face of such unflattering statistics.

"We can't drop our heads. 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," he said.

The response from defender Jack Clisby was far more harrowing complete with the kind of rhetoric you could have cut and pasted from seasons gone by.

“It’s a very difficult time at the moment at the club,” Clisby said. “As a team and as a club we just have to stick together and keep pushing forward.”

It’s a sad state of affairs for a club who were once a glittering jewel in the town’s crown but have since become the court jester and the butt of everyone’s cruel jokes.

The last time the club had a taste of final’s football was under Phil Moss in 2013/14.

Since then, they’ve collected three wooden spoons, finished eighth in the league or lower and have burned through five managers.

Worse still, the Mariners have conceded the most goals in the history of the competition and also finished in the bottom two for average crowd attendances seven times and dead last twice.

It’s a stark contrast to their golden age period when, in 2007/08, they went on to win their first Premiership under the stewardship of Lawrie McKinna where they would attract an average of 15,237 fans.

It’s almost difficult to remember what a heaving Central Coast stadium looks like anymore and to say that it’s a shame is an understatement because it’s truly one of the best football venues in the country.

After spending four years on the sidelines covering the A-League and living on the Coast for a year, I can tell you that what’s left of this club’s fan base is represented by loyal, hugely passionate and beautifully natured people.

They are deserving of so much more than this.

Every year, they cling to the hope that things will be different - that the incumbent coach will ride in on his trusty steed like a valiant knight and save them from their purgatory in their quest to return to the promise land of finals football.

So, when you consider that the 2019/20 season began like almost every other, you could be forgiven for believing that things just might be different this time around.

With a brand new coach at the helm in the form of former Matildas boss, Alen Stajcic, once again we were treated to the club’s grand visions of rebuilding, promoting young players and working towards restoring success.

The pre-season started off brightly and their impressive FFA Cup run forced even the die-hard sceptics to stand-up and take notice.

Then, slowly but surely, the underlying rot which has dogged this club for years, began to resurface and like a fool who has been shamed one too many times before, the joke was on us.

Only this time - no one’s laughing.

When you sift through the sands of time, you are inevitably bogged down in dozens of press releases from coach-to-coach, which all sound scarily similar and proves that the endemic culture has managed to withstand the multiple shifts in personnel.

Stretching back to 2016 when Socceroos legend Paul Okon was first appointed, the rookie gaffer cited the town’s community spirit as a motivating factor.

“We want to give our supporters, the people who have been loyal to this club a reason to keep coming back to Central Coast Stadium and we want to give new people a reason to come and watch this team play football,” Okon said.

“After a disappointing season we want to grow our supporter base and the only way we can do that is by playing a brand of football that’s going to excite people and get people talking about our club again.”

18 months later, it would be Okon who would do the talking instead after he resigned and revealed that his “vision for taking the club forward was very different” to that of Charlesworth’s.

“By all means, the Mariners are under-resourced and don’t spend like other clubs. It does make the job very difficult.” He said.

Fast forward to April 2018 and former A-League Championship winner, Mike Mulvey is being paraded in front of members and labelled as “what could be the most important appointment in the history of the club” by Chief Executive Officer Shaun Mielekamp.

“It is right now, that the hard work, planning and innovative approaches start on our journey towards the future. We know that the future for our club is in the safe hands of Mike Mulvey.”

Then, like a broken record, the supporters were forced to sit through yet another speech about pride being restored in their town.

“We want to give the whole region a team to be proud of. We want them to feel that it’s their team and we’re fighting for this community every time we put on the jersey,” said Mulvey.

Less than a year later and with an abysmal seven points to their name after 21 rounds of football, Mulvey was sacked in March, 2019.

Everyone, from the administrative staff to the coaches, have publicly expressed their desire to mirror the town’s community ethos in their performances but in doing so, have issued the greatest insult of all because this football club is nothing like the hardworking people of the Central Coast.

Over the years we have all been quick to blame the various managers and unsurprisingly, Stajcic has become the latest target with pundits suggesting that “it’s time to start asking questions of the manager.”

But it’s become increasingly evident that the coaches and players have just been scapegoats for the greatest facade merchant of all; owner Mike Charlesworth.

In March 2013, the businessman and director of UK based company Mediatel, agreed to take majority ownership of the Mariners, thus rescuing the club from it’s well-documented financial struggles.

He was lauded as a “saviour” and in March 2016, he invested a reported $40 million dollars into the development of the $100 million project in Tuggerah - the much hyped Centre of Excellence which was officially opened by the-then Prime Minster of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull.

“The Centre of Excellence is on its way to becoming one of Australia’s finest sporting centres,” said Charlesworth who did not attend the official opening.

Mielekamp echoed his sentiments when he said: “Our goal at the Central Coast Mariners is to become the most innovative, entertaining and community minded sports brand in Australia. This is no easy feat and we are well on our way to achieving this goal.”

They also promised a public gym and two additional training pitches to be accompanied by a 1200 seat stadium which would be apart of stages, three, four and five of construction.

By all accounts, the club was headed in the right direction, particularly when Mielekamp announced that they were on track to post a profit in their 2015/16 season.

Then, in January 2017, Charlesworth outlaid his “bold new plan” to invest a further $75 million into Central Coast Stadium and transform it into a “world-class entertainment hub” but it was being stonewalled by the local council.

“I’m incredibly frustrated by council — I think they take the Mariners for granted.” He said.

“Every time I come to the Central Coast I’m flabbergasted by the potential, but also the lack of investment ... that largely comes down to local government and not encouraging investors like myself.”

For most of his tenure, Charlesworth has avoided searing criticism from the masses because the blame was routinely squared at the coaching staff and players.

Had it not been for the unfurling of the odd “Charlesworth Out” banner from a small group of fans, or the well deserved public condemnation from ex-Socceroo Robbie Slater two seasons ago, he has largely remained in the shadows.

But now it’s time to welcome him to the spotlight.

For the better part of the last three to four seasons, the Mariners have spent the minimum of the salary cap requirements.

Inner circles of the football community have also been privy to rumblings that Charlesworth has been trying to sell the club for years now and I have it on good authority that the most recent figure is rumoured to be as much as $15 million.

The Centre of Excellence quite frankly is, not that excellent or conducive to the needs of professional footballers.

There is no public gym and the little equipment that is provided is not sufficient for the playing group. Vital recovery aids are hired from Professional Footballers Australia and rotated amongst those in need, players do not receive any treatment from the “Mariners Medical centre”, most of the office spaces are deserted and the pitches are subject to repeated water logging and remain largely unused due to their poor quality and lack of proper upkeep.

At best, Charlesworth has managed to present his repeated property ventures as “investments in the football club” but the fact is, the team and coaching staff are operating on a fragile frame and hugely under-resourced.

Yet miraculously, Alen Stajcic and the playing group are to blame for the sorry situation they find themselves in once again which couldn't be further from the truth.

“If we can reach 10,000 members, I promise you we’ll be able to invest more money into this football club that will support the club for years to come.” said Charlesworth in a video message to fans in September 2018.

The reality is, the time for promises is over and this calamitous charade must come to an end.

Charlesworth has made a mockery of the Mariners and its constituents for long enough and as patrons of Australian football, we all have a responsibility to call for better standards in the professional game.

As it stands, the A-League’s eco system is fractured and in desperate need of reform and my biggest concern lies with the fact that its future is now in the hands of the owners, owners like Mike Charlesworth.

In a quest to find a tangible solution, we are bombarded with lamentations over the lack of promotion and relegation and whilst I admit it’s a beautiful pipe dream to behold, never once have I heard a viable strategy that wouldn’t plummet the league into further ruin.

The sad reality of Charlesworth’s case is that it’s not uncommon in the A-League.

I distinctly remember covering a Brisbane Roar game in 2015 and listening to a staff member’s story of how they had to pay for postage stamps out of their own pocket just so they could mail memberships to fans.

To this day, the Bakrie Group are still in control of the club.

Similarly, speculation has been rampant since 2019 that Newcastle Jets owner Martin Lee is on the hunt for a new investor, while Tony Sage’s brief dalliance with cryptocurrency mongers, The London Football Exchange indicated he too, has intentions to offload Perth Glory.

Perhaps the greatest irony in all of this is that when the football community petitioned for a change in governance back in 2018, we were supportive of a shift from the Lowy dynasty because we believed it was time for a new and improved era.

But as we navigate through these uncharted waters with the A-League owners at the bow of the ship, somewhere on dry land, Steven Lowy is wryly saying, “I told you so.”