Managing the embattled Central Coast Mariners was one of the last things on Alen Stajcic’s mind when he turned up for work on the 19th of January 2019.
No doubt the then Matildas’ manager believed his presence at FFA headquarters was most likely required to discuss issues pertinent to World Cup preparations and the upcoming matches against Argentina, South Korea and New Zealand.
Instead, Stajcic was dismissed, with player surveys providing the weight behind the decision. Loose and tenuous accusations of player unrest were raised and in one fell swoop, the supposedly intimidating and imposing reign of Stajcic – where players and staff were fearful of asking for assistance – was over.
The sacking was veiled behind the notion of a ‘toxic culture’. What played out in the days following became somewhat absurd at times, with some supporters of the decision insisting that judgement and opinion should be held back until the sordid details became public knowledge.
To this day those details have yet to see light and the Matildas themselves took to social media in support of the man who had taken the national team inside the top ten-ranked nations in women’s football.
The subsequent hush around the event has been telling, with legal action rumoured and Stajcic remaining tight-lipped about the entire affair. Aside from conveying the pain and hurt that the decision had caused both he and his family, Stajcic has said little and now finds his energies channelled into another and perhaps even greater challenge: rescuing the Central Coast Mariners.
And rescuing they do need. Englishman and ex-Brisbane Roar championship-winning manager Mike Mulvey took over the reins in Gosford for 2018-19, after a broom had been put through the playing ranks of the club.
Sadly, it appeared just a few matches into the season that those charged with administering the broom had done little to improve the Mariners’ playing stocks. Disregard any consideration of what the team looked like stylistically or any perceived potential that suggested a much-improved showing later in the season; the Mariners stank.
By week four of the competition, they were last on the ladder. After an embarrassing 8-2 loss to the Phoenix in Round 21, the manager was shown the door. With just a single victory and four draws to show for his efforts, Mulvey probably smiled when the tap on the shoulder finally came, such was the tragedy that the Mariners’ season had become.
Days later, Central Coast announced Stajcic as the interim manager with six matches remaining in the season.
On one level, his appointment could have been interpreted as one of the riskiest and most foolish decisions in the history of the A-League. Stajcic, a man sacked just two months prior for overseeing a horrendous, inappropriate and intimidating culture with one of Australia’s most successful national teams, was obviously a bully and a thug.
He must have been right? Surely the FFA made the call on his future with a full understanding of his role in the issues that the nasty surveys had raised? You would think so.
With that in mind, the Mariners could potentially have been accused of employing a man with limited skill in overseeing a professional, united and acceptable team culture and asking him to do just that in Gosford.
What has occurred since Stajcic’s arrival has been the polar opposite, with captain Matt Simon citing the clear change in attitude and mood at the club. Whilst that is easy to say, results on the pitch speak far louder and Stajcic has brought immediate success.
Within days, a second win of the season had been nabbed against old foe Newcastle. Perth proved a nut too tough to crack, yet a close loss in a winnable game against the Victory in Round 25 clearly showed that something had indeed changed.
Last Saturday, the full extent of the shift in form and attitude was on show when Central Coast spanked the recently impressive Wanderers 3-1.
The fact that 5,059 people made the trip to Central Coast Stadium to farewell the team in their last home match of the season spoke volumes about the Mariners’ recent performances.
Just 3,703 fans had made the trek on that fateful night against the Phoenix, yet some Stajcic magic has brought a few back already.
The Mariners will still run a comfortable last in the long race that is a professional football season and that result is no less embarrassing despite some better play under the new manager. However, negotiations are underway and the likelihood of the 45-year-old being employed in a full-time capacity grows.
The workload ahead will be enormous, with another huge turnover of players likely, yet the fans seem keen on and happy with the softly spoken manager.
How intriguing that a man accused of failing to create and foster a positive and supportive team environment has taken over what appeared to be a basket case and righted the ship immediately.
Stajcic never thought he would be managing the Central Coast Mariners by Easter. His year began with eyes focused firmly on a World Cup in France, yet fate has presented a rather unexpected employment opportunity to him and thus far, he has done a fine job.