Lessons to be learned from Mariners’ moment of madness

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The Central Coast Mariners' John Hutchinson (left) and Bradley Porter hold back Marcos Flores. AAP Image/Paul Miller

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As reports circulated last week about the future of the Central Coast Mariners, many wondered if this would be the end of the Gosford-based club as we know it.

Indeed, after players were reported as not being paid, the forecast looked dismal.

To avoid any confusion, it must be noted the Mariners look set to survive in Gosford, after entrepreneur Mike Charlesworth emerged as a white knight to settle the debt.

And while we thank Mike Charlesworth for securing the Mariners’ short term future, spare a thought for the players who have, as usual, borne the brunt of the club’s cashflow crisis.

With the Professional Footballer’s Association’s (PFA) 20th anniversary fast-approaching, it seems their role in protecting players remains as relevant as ever.

The PFA was founded in the early 1990s, after players continually fell victim to the financial mismanagement of NSL clubs. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It beggars belief that players still have to fight for their wages. Many will write off their complaints using that well-worn cliche of the overpaid, spoilt footballer. But few A-League players could ever fit this mould.

As the PFA media release states, some have been unable to pay their grocery bills.

On another note, the unthinkable was floated last Thursday by SBS, in a report which we now know to be a dud lead. The story suggested a Melbourne-based consortium, with links to former NSL powerhouse South Melbourne, was moving to purchase the license.

For a moment, many could see an NSL Trojan horse ready to sneak its way into the A-League. Among the supposed plans of the consortium was to play several home games in Melbourne, while keeping the Mariners’ operations in Gosford.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s good to see the Mariners have their short term future secured in Gosford, and that players can now get on with the job of winning football matches. Their performance on the weekend was gutsy in trying off-field circumstances.

However, the entire scenario has to be considered as a lesson for the A-League.

Immediately after the story broke, angry Central Coast fans took to Twitter to express their outrage. Unsurprising really, considering the proposals. But while many scoffed at the idea of ‘Central Coast Hellas’ or ‘South Melbourne Mariners’, that misses the point.

It’s not about who the prospective buyers represent, but rather their intentions for the club. No matter who purchases an A-League license, they should do so with the best interests of fans at heart.

Club relocations smacks of American franchises, and does not sit well in the Australian context. Yes, the AFL have relocated several clubs with considerable success, but their competition exists in a very different context to the A-League.

The relocation north of both South Melbourne and the Fitzroy Lions worked because both clubs still played many games in Melbourne due to the high concentration of Victorian clubs. This allowed original ‘Bloods’ and Fitzroy fans to continue their support, albeit from a distance.

Moreover, the clubs and the competition were firmly entrenched due to decades of growth from the grassroots, which formed unbreakable bonds between fans and clubs.

Club relocation in our code of football, though, would prove a lot more difficult. Not that it hasn’t been floated by football administrators and commentators before.

In an editorial moment of frustration in 1978, Soccer World editor Andrew Dettre proposed that Hakoah adopt a “pick up model” and move its operations south to create the ‘Illawarra Stars’.

More recently, the Wellington Phoenix managed a relocation of sorts, although it is questionable as to whether anybody really cared about the old Auckland-based New Zealand Knights in the first place.

The franchising concept does allow clubs a certain freedom, but with the A-League only eight seasons old, it’s a dangerous precedent to set.

Vince Rugari wrote eloquently about how the Mariners have come to symbolise the sport’s ‘new wave’. In this regard, for the Mariners to move anywhere would be crazy.

They’ve arguably done more than any other club to bed down their base. They’ve built an academy, they’re the only tenants in the boutique Bluetongue Stadium, and this season they have even enrolled teams in the NSW State Leagues, both male and female.

Indeed, it’s Central Coast or nothing for the Mariners.

Sometimes, Australian football can resemble that Bill Murray film ‘Groundhog Day’. We inhabit a boom and bust world where every marketing strategy and new idea has been tried and tested. Mistakes have been made several times over in the quest for success.

That said, it’s pleasing to see this issue has been picked up by so many columnists, most notably Ray Gatt at The Australian.

In the same newspaper, veteran sports writer Patrick Smith commented recently journalists shouldn’t become “cheerleaders” for their sport.

With the A-League at an all-time high, it’s a timely reminder. Introspection and caution is arguably more important in the good times than the bad.

As successful as this season has been, it’s crucial to recognise that the A-League is only as strong as its weakest link.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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