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The Central Coast Mariners are a reminder of what's good about the A-League Men

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Expert
25th February, 2024
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You’d have got long odds at the start of the season on Central Coast Mariners coach Mark Jackson staring down the ladder at Tony Popovic and his struggling Melbourne Victory side.

There can’t be too many leagues around the world where the defending champions are predicted by many to finish in the bottom half of the standings the following season.

Yet the Mariners have been defying expectations for years.

After losing their first four league games of the campaign, plenty were keen to write off Jackson – the Englishman brought in to replace popular championship-winning coach Nick Montgomery.

But a 3-1 derby win over the Jets in Gosford – in a match that was originally supposed to be played in Newcastle – helped kick-start a 12-game unbeaten run in the league.

Now the Mariners are through to the inter-zone semi-finals of the AFC Cup after that dramatic 3-2 extra-time win over fellow Aussie combatants Macarthur in midweek – at times Jackson’s outfit look like they’ve been running on fumes – and they were deserving 1-0 winners over Victory at AAMI Park on Sunday afternoon.

They should have won 2-0, only for the diminutive Josh Nisbet to somehow botch a last-second effort when Jake Brimmer somehow got back to clear off the line of an open goal.

No matter. The Mariners were the better side as they finally ended their long AAMI Park hoodoo and moved to within to within three points of table-toppers Wellington Phoenix.

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(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

But what on earth is going on at Melbourne Victory?

They’ve looked insipid under Popovic of late, with his side mustering just one shot on target in almost 100 minutes of football against the visitors.

Roderick Miranda fully deserved his sending off for two bookable offences, although how VAR came to the conclusion that substitute Jordi Valadon tripped Alou Kuol in the final minute of the game is anyone’s guess.

It’s not that Kuol – who also hit the post shortly after coming off the bench at half-time – didn’t appear to go flying under the challenge of Valadon.

It’s that from the camera angle we all saw on TV, it was impossible to tell who initiated contact – or whether Valadon even clipped Kuol at all.

VAR got it right a few minutes later when Mariners substitute Ronald Barcellos saw red for a reckless studs-up tackle barely two minutes after coming on, but the A-League Men is fast becoming a competition where VAR decisions are stealing all of the spotlight.

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Which is the last thing the Australian Professional Leagues needs right now.

We all know the struggles of host broadcaster Paramount+ to put together a reliable streaming product.

Yet the network’s head Beverley McGarvey would be well within her rights to throw the book at the APL – an organisation that no doubt promised big crowds, marquee players, and a rusted-on TV audience.

The only thing the APL has managed to accomplish is decimate match-going attendances and somehow waste tens of millions of dollars in circumstances that are more than a little suspicious.

The football in the A-League Men this season is as entertaining as it has ever been.

But the competition has some serious structural problems.

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Unplayable pitches, insufferable summer temperatures, risk-averse coaches – and that’s even before you get to the blight that is VAR on the game.

The competition has been too small for too long now, and the inherent desire of pretty much anyone who works in football to protect their job at all costs – even if it’s to the detriment of the league – has reduced interest to a smaller and smaller hardcore few.

Perhaps that’s why it’s refreshing to see a guy like Mark Jackson sticking it to the establishment.

Written off by many before his first month of competitive football was even up, the Englishman and his largely rebuilt Mariners side have been a breath of fresh air.

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