The team everyone loves to hate delivered a few reminders of how exciting the A-League can be on Sunday when Marco Tilio and Harry Van Der Saag both scored for Sydney FC.
If Sydney FC’s 3-0 win over the Central Coast Mariners was largely expected, then an 18-year-old debutant and 20-year-old defender getting on the scoresheet certainly was not.
And for all but Sydney FC supporters, much of the focus on the Sky Blues’ hard-fought win in Gosford was on the controversial decision to disallow a Gianni Stensness goal just before half-time for offside.
The problem stemmed from Mariners skipper Kim Eun-sun attempting to block the run of his Sydney FC counterpart Alex Wilkinson, with a VAR check ruling that Kim was actually in an offside position when the free kick was swung in.
“They said the blocker was offside,” a fuming Alen Stajcic told Fox Sports after the break.
“I haven’t seen the blocker called for offside all season. So as long as they stick with that for the next 100 games of A-League, we’ll be right,” the frustrated Mariners coach added.
My view? It was the correct decision. But it definitely feels like the Mariners get the short end of the stick when it comes to refereeing.
And what of Sydney FC? Whenever a decision goes their way you can be guaranteed an avalanche of tweets about referees favouring the Sky Blues won’t be too far behind.
They’re usually authored by Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Victory fans, although it’s a surprisingly widespread conspiracy theory.
It wasn’t as noticeable when the Sky Blues finished seventh and missed the finals in 2016, but two championships in three seasons has understandably put a target on Sydney’s back.
And while it’s easy to bag the Mariners for years of underachievement, they can certainly be forgiven for casting a few envious glances south, especially when players like the Gosford-born Trent Buhagiar and former Mariners legend Wilkinson run out for the Sky Blues.
But perhaps the key difference between the two clubs is that for the past few seasons Sydney FC have always had an eye on futureproofing their success.
That’s why Steve Corica, who’s been with the club since day one, has seamlessly transitioned into the role of head coach.
That’s why Wilkinson was long earmarked to take over the captain’s armband from the retired Alex Brosque.
And that’s why a couple of youngsters like Tilio and the marauding Van Der Saag can come on as substitutes and change the complexion of the game.
There’s a reason so many Mariners fans fire up when Matt Simon comes off the bench, and it’s not just because they’re guaranteed to see elbows flying.
With the greatest of respect to combative South Korean defender Kim, how much does he have in common with the good people of Gosford?
I’m all for welcoming Asian players into the A-League and I think Kim is a serviceable talent, but how much can local fans really identify with a team featuring four starters from Perth and only three with any tangible links to the CCM Academy?
So much of the A-League’s recruitment is done on such an ad hoc basis it often makes it hard for fans to even identify with their own team.
That’s not a dig at the Mariners – they operate in the same talent pool as everyone else – but one thing so many clubs have gone away from in recent seasons is maintaining any sort of connection with their local community.
The introduction of Tilio and Van Der Saag reminded us all of how exciting football can be when a couple of unknown youngsters are thrown into the fray.
That’s surely the template for the Mariners, who in any other league would be a selling club.
They won’t win the title anytime soon, but being the sort of club who launches the next generation of A-League talent might just be one way to win back the locals.