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Mariners’ on-field circus must match off-field progress

The Mariners head to the Harbour City to take on Sydney FC. (Photo: Peter McAlpine)
Expert
5th April, 2016
40

“The reality is that we’re in the entertainment industry and for me that overrides results at this stage.”

Those were the words Central Coast Mariners chairman Mike Charlesworth uttered three games into the 2015-16 A-League season.

Now, with just one game to play, it is safe to say the Mariners have produced neither results nor entertainment. Instead, leading into Saturday’s fixture against the Newcastle Jets, they are on track to hold a few all-time worst records for an Australian A-League club.

If they lose or draw to the Jets, the Mariners will have recorded the least wins – three. That unwanted gong will be in good company; they will also hold the record for least points (13, 14 or 16, it does not matter) and most goals conceded (66 or worse).

Only the New Zealand Knights sit between the Mariners and the all-time worse A-League record, their one win and six points in the inaugural A-League season likely (or hopefully) never to be beaten.

It is a damning indictment on the way Charlesworth has ruled over the Mariners this season, and also a blot on the resume of coach Tony Walmsley and his assistant John Hutchinson.

Charlesworth’s willingness to sacrifice results for entertainment has been taken too far, while Walmsley appears to hold 100 per cent job security without any threat of demotion to a second division.

Is the lack of a promotion-relegation system going to prove beneficial for the A-League in this instance or make a mockery of the competition? Next season we will have an answer.

It has been a bizarre six months on the Central Coast, filled with player discontent, erratic statements from management, allegations of unpaid superannuation, an internal investigation to uncover an alleged club mole, personnel dismissals and defections, as well as goals, lots of goals.

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Only Melbourne City (105) have been involved in more goals than the Mariners (97) this season, yet at least the former can boast a 21-plus goal difference. The Mariners sit on minus 35, which, incidentally, will be another undesirable A-League record (even including the Knights).

Charlesworth’s assessment that goals equal entertainment, however, has failed to materialise.

To make it clear, Walmsley appeared doomed from the beginning. This roster never looked good enough to make it to the A-League finals. The Mariners were most observers’ pick for the wooden spoon before a ball had been kicked.

Yet the Mariners’ opening day victory over Perth Glory 3-2 clearly did nobody any favours.

It was an entertaining game, if a little chaotic. While the Mariners’ swashbuckling style of play had delivered three points, it was obvious that this team would concede a hell of a lot more than they would score over the remaining 26 games.

Yet Charlesworth was pleased, he saw entertainment. Something which could distract the locals from attending the latest James Bond flick.

From there, though, the glimmer of hope diminished. An 11-game winless run followed, which included six consecutive losses leading into 3-1 victory over Wellington Phoenix on the last day of 2015.

Meanwhile, the off-field events in between those two lonely three-pointers resembled a circus.

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Charlesworth blasted the bigger A-League clubs – namely Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Melbourne City – for failing to service the competition with high-profile marquees. Bugger results, after all, the masses want entertainment.

Then came the player upheaval, first Liam Reddy and then Eddy Bosnar being shown the door after reportedly revolting over Walmsley’s gung-ho tactics. Rampant rumours of dressing room discontent continued when it was revealed someone had leaked the Mariners’ starting line-up to Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold.

An internal investigation followed where the club ordered players to hand over mobile phone records in a blatant disregard for privacy.

All the while there were constant soundbites from coaching staff and upper management that the attacking style was here to stay regardless of poor results.

“We know we take certain risks playing that style and there will be times where it doesn’t work out. I feel entertained but it didn’t go our way so we move on to the next one” Walmsley said after a 3-1 defeat to Melbourne City.

“We are going to take risks… and we know that in some games we’ll possibly get taken apart. It’s a risk we are prepared to take,” Charlesworth reiterated.

Executive vice-chairman Peter Storrie soon entered the circus ring, too, saying it was “pleasing” that the Mariners had managed to score in all six of their opening games. No matter that points had been absent.

“Obviously, you want to win games, but it’s a league where there’s no relegation and playing attractive football and getting the supporters back is our number one priority,” Storrie said.

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“That’s the path we are following and I think the fans are buying into it. I speak to them at games and they love the style.”

The only problem was that the fans were not buying into it. And it turns out the players were getting frustrated too, with arguably the Mariners’ brightest talents, Anthony Caceres and Nick Fitzgerald, jumping ship. Both ended up at Melbourne City.

Mixed into a January recruitment drive that included the signings of Francesco Stella, Alastair Bray. Matthew Fletcher, Trent Buhagiar and Brad McDonald, was the ultimately comical pursuit of Youssouf Hersi. It should have been a morale-boosting signing.

Yet the former Perth Glory forward arrived from Holland, trained with the club, completed his medical, went to sign the papers… and was told he was ineligible. Hersi had arrived in Australia on a tourist visa, not a work visa, in an embarrassing bungle for both player and club. You can’t make this shit up.

Luis Garcia also came in on a short-term deal and momentarily lifted the mood – a 45-minute cameo producing two assists and a goal in a 3-1 win over Wellington – but by the end of February the honeymoon period was over. Since that win the club is winless in nine games.

The Mariners were confirmed wooden spooners with four games to play. It has been disastrous on the field.

Yet Charlesworth has assured supporters and media that the club has never been in a better financial position. He has said the club should break even next season, which would be a great achievement. Attention has also been redirected into the club’s Centre of Excellence, which can only be good for Australian football.

The Mariners have produced the likes of Bernie Ibini, Oliver Bozanic, Mustafa Amini, Trent Sainsbury, Mile Jedinak, Rostyn Griffiths and Tom Rogic. They play an important role already in the game’s development.

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Yet should Charlesworth be free to treat the club as a business, using the Centre of Excellence to identify quality youngsters, taking advantage of the A-League to blood them and then developing contacts overseas to flog them off for a profit?

It is a sound business plan, and for a club the size of the Mariners makes sense. But it all falls apart without some semblance of an on-field vision.

“The players need to grow up quickly. If this doesn’t hurt them as professional athletes, then they won’t be professional athletes for too long. It’s burning everybody,” Walmsley said when the wooden spoon was confirmed.

“It’s definitely not where we thought we would be and it’s not where we want to be. But we have made all the right steps off the field to make sure the club is viable and moving toward being the most innovative and entertaining football club in Australia.”

It is a very optimistic outlook after the Mariners failed so spectacularly on the field this season. They failed to pick up results and they failed to entertain. It is hard to discern what exactly they achieved this season in the name of football.

In a season which has been one of the most exciting in the A-League’s history, the Mariners’ exploits have unfortunately made a mockery of the competition, to be honest.

Yes, the A-League needs to have stable, sustainable clubs, but the Mariners in 2015-16 were a laughing stock on the field. There can be no argument otherwise.

Three wins, 13 points, 66 conceded, nine red cards, 16 debutants, and with one game left to play. It is heavy reading.

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Walmsley has a decent base for next season, there are promising youngsters in Liam Rose, Mitch Austin, Anthony Kalik and Storm Roux. And Roy O’Donovan looks a player who can excel surrounded with the right personnel.

But Walmsley needs Charlesworth to pump in some cash and add four or five quality, experienced players to help make the club competitive.

Charlesworth is attempting to play moneyball, but he has not proved very good at it so far. When talking to SBS at the start of the season about the introduction of analytics expert John Young, Charlesworth made bold claims.

“Losing one to two million dollars a year isn’t a sustainable model, however successful we are on the pitch, so we need to do things differently,” he said.

“We need extra fans both at the stadium, on TV and online and I’m confident over the course of the season we’ll deliver on this objective.”

The fans have not been convinced though; they aren’t mugs. If they want entertainment, they will go watch James Bond or head to a circus. But they do not want clowns when it comes to the football pitch, they want quality athletes.

They will not be entering Gosford Stadium in droves without a respectable plan for on-field success.

Charlesworth will realise that his ambitions to entertain failed, and he has to identify why. As a businessman sinking money into the A-League he has to retain a large amount of respect, but there must be a change in the way he approaches the on-field product.

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