Feel Good Mojo
You can tell how important football is for a country by how much sense their football season makes; at least, that’s one way I see it. Going by that metric, it’s clear to see that football, association football that is, is a relatively new phenomenon in a country ruled by Aussie rules football, rugby and cricket. It was the kind of thoughts I had while waiting to get on a bus in the bitter August cold to Perry Park, the home of Lions FC, to kickstart the 2025 Australia Cup campaign with our Central Coast Mariners.
The Australia Cup, as Rachel had explained to me before, is the national knockout cup. However, what she failed to explain is that, unlike say the FA Cup or the Copa del Rey, it’s not played in parallel to the rest of the season, nor is it played as a prelude to the rest of the season, as some Latin American leagues do. Instead, it’s sort of a mixed bag between the two, where the cup is played sparsely from August to December, as if it was a mid-week competition, but during the months that the league is on a break. The result is that it works as sort of an official pre-season friendly tournament, where we’re playing our youth squad to gain competitive rhythm one weekend and facing an official match the next, but then don’t have another until the next month.
This made those early months very hard to put your finger on. Are we in pre-season? Are we competing? Should I put my best 11 out there or bring the boys? I had none of those answers. Still, we enjoyed that early part of the season, mixing travels around the country with brutal demolitions at home.
As the season progressed, I started to get more and more familiar with my players. Since most of our weeks we were playing friendlies at home, we had more time to work on stuff and team cohesion was one of those. We did group dinners on Friday nights and community work Monday afternoons. It was a professional and dedicated bunch, who understood what they wanted to achieve, and they looked up to one another, even though they were barely breaking out of their teens. Simone Lucaroni wasn’t just our best player out there, he was also a leader and players older than him followed without as much as flinching.
As the weather got better towards October, it almost had that “early days in school” feeling where you’re back from vacation but you don’t feel like you are. We got two 16-0 wins and another 11-0. After Lions FC, we took on Sunshine Coast Wanderers, then Wellington Phoenix (which, it was explained to me, was the odd one out in the A-League as it was actually based in New Zealand). That set us up for a semi-finals clash against Western Sydney Wanderers. We started dominating and almost ended up going out when an 83rd-minute goal tied it 2-2, but our feel-good mojo was too much and we beat them on penalties.
It had been a relatively easy-going market, for two reasons. The staff and I had decided that since the best performers had come from the youth teams, it would be a bad idea to put obstacles in their road in the shape of the underperforming “first-teamers” we could afford. Our only signings of the season had been Joshua Rawlins, a right-back who had just been dropped by Perth Glory and Jack Clarkson, a young centre-back from Adelaide United’s NPL team.
However, when the regular season started, we were quickly second-guessing ourselves. A run of two wins in the first seven matches made it look like the performances of last season were a mirage.
Right in the middle of that run came the Australia Cup final, which was held at the Canberra Stadium. I came to it a bit anxious. It was my first shot at silverware in Australia, but it couldn’t have come at a worse moment, with the team struggling to fire on all cylinders. With high hopes but low expectations, we faced our executioners from just six months ago. Things didn’t go much better; in fact, we lost this one even harder. Solid loss, 0-2, and we were quite wasteful.
The board insisted that the Australia Cup was not high up their priority list, but I saw it more as a stumbling block than anything else. Another loss at a final, against the same team.. were they about to become our boogie team?
Later that month we got another hit. SC Paderborn, who were at the time playing in the 3. Bundesliga came to us looking for Chris Theocharous. At a time when he was one of the few regular performers, it was a hard decision to take.
“I say keep him. We don’t need the money”, insisted Jasper Kearton, the DoF.
“We do”, replied Rachel.
“Do we?”, I asked.
“We do. We just barely clawed our way out of debt with the sale of Goddard, and the projection is we won’t be making any big income until the playoffs”, she explained.
“Well, that’s always the cycle… and why are you exactly in this meeting?”, replied Jasper
“We want to break that cycle, we want to make this team a continued success. That’s my job”
“By virtue of what, exactly?”
“By virtue of I’m the Chief Consultant and I’m the one the owner and the manager trust, not you”.
“Ok, guys… we’re not going to solve anything like this… so we take the money, how do we move forward then?”, I asked, trying to stop things from flaring up.
“Well, that’s your area of expertise…”, replied Jasper, “Fix it on the tactics board”.
The solution did indeed come from the tactics board. It was a small switch, which was born out of a small detail. We were on the training field. The day had been a long one and some guys were practising shots, joking around while we picked up the equipment. A ball hit the bar at a weird angle and fell right in front of Jodi Jones, one of the forwards who were in contention to take Chris’ spot on the left wing. Without much preparation, he volleyed the ball into the top corner with his right foot.
“Decent effort Jodi”, I exclaimed.
“You’re quite good with your right foot aren’t you?”
“I… think? I don’t go for it often”, he replied.
“Maybe you should”
Back on the drawing board, I made a simple change. Instead of using a winger to stretch play on the left, I decided to use Jodi on his right foot to cut inside, and open up the channel for left-back Jordan Bos, who loved to run forwards. Initially, results were a mixed bag, but by February we were getting back-to-back wins and shooting up the table. “Things are gonna change, I can feel it”, I told my assistant after we beat Melbourne Victory away in March.
A guy named Alen Stajcic
One of the wins I enjoyed the most was a 4-1 thrashing of Adelaide United, away at their Coopers Stadium. They were managed by a guy named Alen Stajcic, who was in charge of Sydney FC back when I first arrived at the league. A keen reader will quickly figure out he was also the guy who beat me 3-0 in my first match.
Far from a graceful winner, he went out and joined the press in mocking me, claiming that I would have “learned a few things” after that match and that the Mariners wouldn’t bounce back for a while as it was going to “take some time until we were in their class”. I was fuming all week, so I was thrilled to, quoting a famous poet, knock him right off his f*cking perch. Imagine my surprise then when we learned we would be facing them in the finals.
The run to the Playoffs Grand Final had been a fairly straightforward affair for us. Our push in the regular season was good enough to make it 2nd in the end, some X points behind the leaders, Melbourne Victory. As one of the top two teams, we rested while 3rd through 6th battled for a spot in the semis, just like we had done last year.
When the time came to move into action, we made an easy job of the Western Sydney Wanderers, 5-2 on aggregate. However, the big surprise was coming from the other semi, with Adelaide United taking down the defending Championship and Premiership winners 3-0 after all was said and done. The media of course made a huge build-up of the clash between Stajcic and myself in the final, but he downplayed it which left me roaring for a nice mind games battle.
As the highest qualified team, this time we had the honour of holding the final in our very own Grahame Park stadium, and we were the favourites by a long mile. As the teams went out to warm up, we saw that it was absolutely packed. Some 15,000 fans, covered in yellow and navy, roaring us on.
I must admit I was very confident. We had done a good job of Adelaide United in the Regular Season, beating them home and away, and without any serious absences, it looked to be in the bag.
We started on fire. Jodi Jones dribbled past their right back to put a cross, which Brandon Blackshaw connected just outside the six-yard box to put us 1-0 up after just 46 seconds. We controlled the game from there on out, and four minutes from the end of the first half Josh Nisbet found Béni Nkololo cutting inside from the wing for a quick putback for Simone Lucaroni. Two-nil, drawing circles around them.
In the dressing room, it was all high moods and smiles. I told my guys to keep at it, keep pushing, and the roar felt like they were going out to put 10 past this lot. It would all unravel very quickly.
At the 60th minute mark, Nkololo lost the opposing left-back, who put in a cross. A striker called Sam Devoy waited for both our centrebacks to miss the clearance to comfortably head the 2-1 home. Out of nowhere, our guys started to lose faith, and they got an extra step on their feet. Just six minutes later, we lost the ball on a sloppy move to play out the back, one of their midfielders got it back and he put a quick ball for Devoy, who lost his marker, squared up and buried a belter from about 25 yards out.
Ever seen one of those fights where with a single hit one of the boxers goes to the ground like he’s been switched off? Well, that. We had some more chances before the end of regulation, but by the time Extra Time came around, we were nowhere to be found. At the 108th minute, the definitive blow came. Out of a long kick from their keeper, our centrebacks misread the drop of the ball and left who else but Sam Devoy with nothing but green grass and our keeper in front. He put it in with skill and that was the end.
Around the ground, Mariners fans looked on in disbelief. Losing it to the best team in the league after a miracle campaign was hard, but this was something else. When the whistle went, some of ours went to the ground, but the leaders picked them up. We stayed to watch the lifting of the trophy and then the fans clapped the team off, tears washing the yellow and navy paint from their faces. We were losers once again.
The following day I received an email with the results of the awards of the season voting. Six out of the eleven Team of the Season players were ours, and I was second for Manager of the Season. Someone had also forwarded me the sports cover from The Herald Sun; they called it the “collapse of the decade”. I sent a text to Rachel: “Tell me what we need to do, we’re not losing this again”.