Magical Mariners take their place in A-League pantheon with back-to-back titles

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Danny Vukovic;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Danny Vukovic</a> raises the Championship Trophy after Central Coast Mariners won the A-League Grand Final.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images</span>

The Central Coast Mariners weren’t supposed to stun Australian football, let alone their opponents, and pull a rabbit from their blue and yellow cap to keep this miraculous story going.

Melbourne Victory had done enough to beat them in Saturday evening’s A-League Men (ALM) grand final. A 50th-minute lead sourced through the unlikely figure of Jason Geria had given way to a rearguard action that held their opponents to just three shots across the 90 minutes, none of which were on target.

Related: Central Coast seal historic treble in grand final thriller against Melbourne Victory

Sure, the Mariners had thrown themselves forward with abandon and the visitors weren’t looking as effective after a series of late substitutions, but as regular time expired in Gosford, it needs to be stressed that Victory had done enough to secure a record-equalling fifth title. It would have been a championship earned, not stolen.

But then Ryan Edmondson helped spark and finish a move in the first minute of added time to equalise. Miguel Di Pizio put them ahead in the 97th minute. Then Edmondson put a bow on things in the 121st. And somehow, the Mariners had tapped a reservoir of magic and found a way to win. Again.

There was a degree of fortune involved. The footballing gods were certainly smiling on Edmondson last night. But a level of undeniable adaptability and resoluteness has become a defining theme of this year’s remarkable season under Mark Jackson, one now ending with the historic first of a title, a premiership and an AFC Cup.

After romping to a championship in 2022-23, modern football had done its thing to a club as penurious as the Mariners; stripping them of prize assets sold off to clubs overseas. Having made champions of an island of misfit toys operating on a shoestring budget, coach Nick Montgomery departed on the eve of the campaign. In January, one of the brightest jewels remaining, Marco Túlio, left for the J1 League. The newly arrived Ángel Torres was stood down in May after he was arrested and charged over sexual assault allegations.

You’re supposed to fall off when this happens, unable to fight the tide of money and resources before you’re enveloped. The success you have earned, the players you have developed, and the culture you have built are then reaped by others. The dictate of modern football is that Cinderella only gets to go to the ball once.

But here we are, and, once again, Central Coast are champions of the ALM, wearing the glass slipper (the glass boot?) as the best in Australian football. They did it with a new record for the largest crowd in their history, 21,379, in the stands – a big chunk of whom ended up on the pitch at the full-time whistle as the premiers plate and AFC Cup were brought out alongside the ‘toilet seat’ championship in celebration.

A good year. So good, in fact, that it puts them in the conversation as one of the best in the ALM’s history.

Would they beat Ange Postecoglou’s Roarcalona? Graham Arnold’s team of Sydney FC killbots or Kevin Muscat’s irrepressible 2015 outfit? Maybe in a one-off game, but probably not as a general rule. Arguably, the firepower in last year’s side - now departed figures such as Jason Cummings and Samuel Silvera leading the line - could be said to give that iteration the edge.

But how many sides across the history of the league could have absorbed the blows this Mariners one has and still emerged triumphant? Players, coaches, and even executives have come and gone across the past 18 months - with hardly a bountiful treasury there to replace them. Yet the silverware has continued to come in. Are the 2023-24 Mariners the best team in ALM history? Probably not. But perhaps they’re the most resolute, adaptable and pertinacious in philosophy and spirit. And that carries its own level of greatness and legacy, one that cannot be denied.

As the Mariners take their place in the pantheon, perhaps the rest of the league can look on and note that nothing the champions have done this season, nor the road they have walked to get to this point, is beyond any other side in this league. Absolutely the specifics are unique: the community spirit of Gosford, the galvanising effects of a Sword of Damocles hanging over the club for years, and special individuals such as Matt Simon and Brian Kaltak.

But the principles underlying this success, the commitment to development and the willingness to give it a go, the shrewd identification of talent in Australia and around the world, and the preparedness to adapt in approach, are eminently replicable. And free.