Save the Mariners or it just ain’t the A-League

The Central Coast Mariners are the current whipping boys of the A-League.

Four wooden spoons in five seasons don’t lie and despite some promising play under former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic, they remain far from a serious threat for A-League glory.

However, most fans of football in Australia take little joy from that fact.

Stajcic is well liked and respected, the Mariners’ home venue is one of the best in the league and the club has developed a litany of talented youngsters over the years; many of whom have gone on to achieve great things in the game.

Right from the start, Central Coast had always been a little different. As part of an FFA determination that a regional team should form part of the inaugural A-League season in 2005-06, its birth was somewhat forced and has subsequently resulted in constant financial challenges throughout its 15 years of participation.

Early on things looked bright, with three runners-up medals across the first six A-League seasons, before the glorious Graham Arnold inspired championship season of 2012-13 where the coach took the oft bridesmaids to the mountain for the first and still only time.

Since, the train has derailed.

Without a finals appearance since 2013-14 and just a paltry 26 wins from the clubs last 161 matches, it is easy to identify the need for the tough and passionate fibres that exist in Mariner fans.

Those fans come from a beautiful part of New South Wales’ east coast, an area just an hour or so north of Sydney and one in which somewhere near 350,000 people reside.

It is a relatively small base on which to draw, especially considering the 566.4 square kilometres that the entire region encompasses, extending to the north, south and west.

Only Wellington Phoenix can claim a less populous area upon which to build a fan-base, with little more than 200,000 residing in the windy city. Elsewhere in the A-League, clubs from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide enjoy higher numbers, potential fans and the greater chance of securing the lucrative sponsorship deals required to keep football clubs afloat.

In reality, not too many clubs have been doing a sterling job in that area over recent seasons, with broadcast money ensuring survival and the recent lowering of those commitments highlighting just how financially fragile the A-League actually is.

The reality of a considerably lowered salary cap looms for the 2020-21 season, as does a continued exodus of quality foreign players and now it appears almost certain that two A-League owners who have had enough of the financial strain will offload their commitment in the short-term future.

Ruon Tongyik

What does the future hold for the A-League? (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Newcastle’s owner Martin Lee has apparently agreed to terms with a Sydney businessman; now apparently set to take over the Jets by the beginning of the new A-League season and Central Coast’s owner Mike Charlesworth has also put his club on the open market.

The Jets’ new arrangement is reported to ensure the club remains in the Hunter, yet there were immediate calls for potential relocation as soon as the Mariners news broke.

The ACT immediately began jumping up and down, lathering in the thought of presenting a local team for A-League play, ideas around a potential crowd-funding arrangement that would see the fans take ownership of and rescue the Mariners, also began circling and now a third ‘solution’ has come to light.

An A-League owners fund has been mooted as a potential saviour for clubs that enter into the murky waters of resale; with the wealthiest of owners using their financial clout to keep struggling clubs operating instead of vanishing from the competition.

Alen Stajcic

Alen Stajcic (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Should the Newcastle deal not transpire in the way Jets’ CEO Lawrie McKinna recently forecast that it would and Charlesworth not be able to find a buyer for the Mariners, such a fund may well be the only way the clubs could possibly continue in the A-League.

Their absence would be undesirable and sad, yet some argue that natural attrition merely removes those requiring “propping up” and creates a more sustainable model with only clubs capable of surviving doing so.

Personally, I find that view somewhat harsh and forgetful of the long term goal of building the top tier to a point where it can flourish; supported by a successful second tier that will accommodate those clubs not enjoying the best of days.

That is where natural attrition lies in football, where hard times mean relegation and not extinction.

The Central Coast Mariners have brought much to our competition and whether a new owner, the fans or other A-League owners come to the rescue, we should all cheer if and when it does occur.

The league would lose a great deal without the palm trees and sauce bottles at Grahame Park.