For long-suffering fans of the Central Coast Mariners, Wednesday’s FFA Cup semi-final against Adelaide United represented a rekindling of that vision of the promised land.
That time not so long ago when the Mariners were one of the A-League’s heavy hitters, perennial semi-finalists, grand finalists and, at least once, champions.
At 1-0 up, with less than 20 minutes to play, the Mariners were looking good to take their place in the FFA Cup final against Melbourne City, a footballing version of ‘rich man, poor man’ looming large for the FFA marketing department to capitalise on.
That was until Matt Simon’s clumsy swinging arm caught the attention of the referee, as well as the mouth of Adelaide defender Jordan Elsey. Simon’s second yellow card of the night saw him trudge off the park leaving his team a player down and Elsey spitting the colour of the card Simon was ultimately issued.
It proved too much of a mountain for the Mariners to climb, as George Blackwood equalised only minutes after Simon’s departure and Riley McGree took advantage of a tired defence in the last minute to end the Mariners’ final hopes and give the FFA marketing department a harder job in promoting the final.
Alen Stajcic has made a pretty decent fist of transforming the shell-shocked basket case that was the Mariners around March 2019 when he was initially appointed to the head coach role.
He has worked to replenish the playing roster with the most limited budget in the A-League and early indications are he has brought in a couple of gems in Sam Silvera and Ziggy Gordon. His presence seems to have galvanised Tommy Oar and Danny De Silva, who have looked sharp and keen in the pre-season and early FFA Cup rounds.
The addition of Mark Birighitti has given the goalkeeping ranks the sort of solid look that has been missing since the Mat Ryan days. But it’s the Matt with a second T that has Mariners fans feeling a little nervous.
Matt Simon is a justifiable local icon – born and bred on the Central Coast, initially signed to the club in 2006, came back after a stint in South Korea didn’t work out, let go by the club in 2015 only to secure a contract with Sydney FC, returning to the club in 2018 and given the captaincy, even though it seemed at one stage he may have played third wheel up front to Ross McCormack and a certain Jamaican who could run extremely fast.
Events conspired to thrust Simon into a regular starting role – McCormack sustained a season-ending injury and the very fast Jamaican turned out to be a very mediocre footballer.
Simon’s seven goals in 2018-19 were achieved in typical bustling fashion but passion was giving way to frustration as the Mariners’ season crumbled like a kid’s sandcastle at high tide on Wamberal Beach. Simon kept running foul of the referees. Eight yellow cards and one red for the season is maybe something you’d expect of a tough-tackling central defender, but not the main striker and club captain.
There was no need for frustration on Wednesday. The Mariners were ahead, they looked solid at the back – not a trait fans had become accustomed to seeing in more recent seasons. Silvera, Oar and De Silva looked dangerous in the last third.
Simon had picked up a needless yellow card earlier in the game and while it may sound like hindsight, I swear I turned to a fellow fan in attendance with the thought that Matt Simon was walking a disciplinary tightrope quite a while before he proved the point. Others in the almost 6000 crowd seemed to sense it too. Maybe Alen Stajcic could have, and subbed Simon before his ill-fated challenge on Elsey.
The bigger picture is what does Stajcic do from here? Having the captain sent off in a cup semi-final while leading 1-0 with 18 minutes to play is the sort of thing that turns coaches inside-out with despair.
Simon has built up an enormous bank of goodwill with Mariners fans for his undying will and loyalty to the cause but there is the sense that the support is eroding with every wild challenge and flailing arm. Simon needs to score goals not judiciary visits to justify his place at the point of the Mariners attack.
The Mariners’ limited budget probably precludes investment in more striking talent, but I wonder if Besart Berisha’s recent free agency might have tempted Stajcic to have bent the ear of Mariners owner Mike Charlesworth for the combination to the safe, before Western United snapped up the A-League’s highest-ever scorer.
Instead, Stajcic has the Mariners highest-ever scorer. Simon’s on-field passion needs to avoid the card-collecting of recent times, lest Stajcic feel more like he’s stuck with Matt rather than sticking with him.