The longer the A-League season runs and the further behind us the pandemic appears, the more distant excuses and extenuating circumstances drift from the collective thinking around the performances of the 12 teams.
When we farewelled 2020 I thought we were getting rid of things like blowing candles on cakes, eating at buffets, and lastly… unprecedented times.
However no one has seemed to have told that to Alen Stajcic and his Central Coast Mariners who returned to the top of the table following a 2-0 win away at defending champions Sydney FC, a sentence which almost sounds like something out of a parallel universe no matter how era appropriate that might be.
While a number of youngsters have produced inspired performances, Mark Birighitti has been a rock in front of goal, and Oli Bozanic has brought balance, leadership, and experience to a club that has lacked all three things in recent seasons. No other player represents the Central Coast more than the A-League’s resident pantomime anti-hero Matt Simon.
Standing at 188cm and weighing 78kgs, he doesn’t wear a hipster hairdo, no facial hair, and no (visible) tattoos in sight, Matt Simon doesn’t look like your stereotypical modern footballer.
He doesn’t wear bright coloured boots, nor do those boots pass or control the ball with much finesse. He resembles a park footballer who tells anyone who will listen he would’ve had a career in football if it wasn’t for a knee injury, rather than someone who has made a living playing the game.
There’s nothing flashy or fancy about the man who recently celebrated his 35th birthday.
Born on the Coast, Simon made his A-League debut in an F3 Derby, a fixture he would go on to star in multiple times, a couple weeks shy of his 21st birthday, bar a short, albeit successful stint for Sydney FC, Simon is a Coastie through and through. Someone who has already arguably achieved legend status at the club founded in 2004.
At the time of writing only five players in A-League history has had their name etched on a referee’s card more than Matt Simon’s 57 (55 yellows, two reds), in fact his first half booking against the reigning premiers and champions means he now has more bookings than goals, which is a phenomenal stat for a player who hasn’t played any position other than striker in his A-League career which began 14 years ago.
Scoring has never been his forte. He once went 48 matches without rippling the back of the net. In fact, since he returned to Australia from a short stint with K-League outfit Jeonnam Dragons in 2013, he has only scored 20 times despite playing over 150 matches in that time
Despite this, Simon is the club’s all-time leading goalscorer (with 51), 16 clear of next best Adam Kwasnik. And, as the man known colloquially as the Wizard of Woy Woy nears his 200th appearance for the Gosford club, only John Hutchinson has featured more (229) in the A-League.
While skipper Bozanic boasts several Socceroos caps, and a couple domestic titles to his name, Birighitti has performed consistently at A-League level for almost a decade now, and not too many A-League players can say they’ve played at a World Cup, let alone scored at one, like Marco Urena.
Half of Alen Stajcic’s squad haven’t even played 50 professional senior matches. The two-time Socceroo is a senior member of the squad, say what you want about him, you can’t deny his passion. When he steps onto the field, there aren’t many other players you’d want playing on or for your team.
You know what you’re going to get when Matt Simon plays. While he’s not easy on the eye, he’s unique to the A-League and to Australian football, constantly teetering on the edge of getting sent off. His strength and unorthodox style makes him a nuisance for defenders, regardless whether they’ve recently departed the club or not.
That’s not to say he’s a role model, far from it. No player has received more yellows than the three the man who wears number 19 in yellow and navy has, and only teammate Bozanic, Adelaide’s Louis D’Arrigo, Western Sydney’s Graham Dorrans, and Newcastle’s Angus Thurgate have conceded more fouls than the striker’s eight.
But that kind of stat is what we’ve come to expect. He has only had two shots on goal thus far, and neither of them have troubled the keeper, those numbers would hurt any other striker in the world, but Simon keeps going about his business, and so far, he and his side have been getting the job done.
They’ve only been breached once in 360 minutes. Not since in 2007-08 when Simon was a 21-year-old have the Mariners won more points and conceded fewer goals than they have at this stage of season, that year they claimed their maiden Premiers’ Plate.
Simon is a battler, Stajcic has plenty of them. Take Ruon Tongyik for example, the 24-year-old centre half has held contracts at four other A-League clubs already, 13 of his 38 appearances have been for the Mariners.
His partner Kye Rowles, once went 28 winless matches in Mariners colours, from December 2017 to April 2019 (in his drought breaking winning match he scored and got himself sent off). Jordan Smylie made his A-League debut in March 2018, he didn’t feature again until their recent New Year’s Eve clash against Newcastle.
At 144cm, Josh Nisbet is the smallest player to step foot in the competition. Stajcic himself is a two-time W-League winning manager, was controversially dismissed from his role as Matilda’s boss prior to joining the Central Coast.
Since 2014-15 the Mariners have claimed the dreaded wooden spoon four times in the past five seasons. In two of those seasons they won three games, finished on 13 points, and conceded 70 goals.
In recent years, the Mariners struggling financially and being at the foot of the table has been almost as common as the sun rising and setting each day.
A lot of players, staff, and I’m sure fans, have come and gone since the Mariners last made the finals in the 2013-14 season, Simon himself included, but after the start they’ve had, Mariners faithful have every right to get excited.
The global pandemic has affected all walks of life, the 2020-21 A-League campaign is certainly no exception. Stajcic’s men have only played the four other NSW teams, who knows how they will compete against the non-NSW sides (Wellington included), and who knows how long they’ll continue in this form, not many teams around the world have found much consistency in these times.
Simon was a late substitute when the Mariners last appeared in the finals all those years ago, a 2-0 loss to Western Sydney, and it could be argued no other player in this squad deserves another shot at Australian football’s biggest prize, and no one will have quite the impact in helping his side get there than Central Coast’s own Matt Simon.