Saturday, February 23, 2008
Grand Final Preview: Coming of Age
It's certainly heartening to see two teams that have built up their supporter bases so impressively over the last couple of years contesting the final. And although it seems callous to deprive the Mariners of a home showpiece, the FFA have probably made the correct choice of venue; the atmosphere at the Christmas classic was tremendous (you could even call it "electric" if you wanted a punch in the mouth), but a turnout of 17,000 doesn't sound too impressive in the papers.
I'm reliably informed by Mariners fans that there were plenty who wanted to get tickets to the 2005/06 Grand Final but couldn't; given the growth of the supporter base on the Central Coast since then, and the similar upsurge in interest in the Hunter, I don't think the stadium will look half-empty tomorrow, as some have feared.
And from the football point of view?
Central Coast v. Newcastle matches tend to have a delicious edge to them, and the smart money must be on plenty of heavy challenges and a great deal of, as it is delicately termed, "feeling". It's unlikely to be an open game, in my view.
But there will no doubt be plenty to engage the neutral spectator, with many of the most impressive players of the season - Joel Griffiths, Mile Jedinak, John Aloisi, Ante Covic - on show. Aloisi in particular, who is not likely to stay with the Mariners, will be keen to sign off on a good note.
And now for a more detailed preview of tomorrow's events:
History will be made on Sunday, whoever comes out on top between the Central Coast and Newcastle. The result will mark just the third time (since national league competition began in 1977) that a regional team will be crowned champions of Australia and will bring about the second championship-winning regional club after the Wollongong Wolves. Both clubs have already set respective milestones - the Jets have become the first team from the Hunter to reach a NSL/A-League grand final while the Mariners are only the second regional club to win a national premiership (after Wollongong in 1988).
The manner in which the Central Coast head into their second grand final is of particular interest. Following their 3-0 second leg and 3-2 aggregate win over Newcastle in the major semi-final, coach Lawrie McKinna said (admittedly rather light-heartedly): "Reading the papers today you wouldn't have known we were playing tonight, so thanks very much to the journalists for not giving us much of a wrap. We like having our backs against the walls."
After the stirring, against-the-odds (come the final round) capture of the premiership a few weeks earlier, even the relatively new John Aloisi had caught on, saying that "I think the boys were actually quite confident today because there wasn't the pressure on us in other weeks. Now we're the underdogs, everyone has been writing us off for the past two weeks because of our results. In one of the papers today they said we were heroic failures, and so the boys were pumped up for that. This is a situation we like to be in."
The underdog mentality has served the Mariners well, not just in this season's major semi-final or in the premiership race, but over the course of their history. Their march to the grand final in 2005-2006 - a season in which they were probably the best team to watch, along with Queensland - came in spite of a crippling injury toll, tough scheduling and a couple of hugely demoralising, somewhat unfortunate mid-season home defeats to Sydney and Adelaide that easily could've derailed the Central Coast's season. They then managed to put themselves in contention for a top four and even top two finish going into the last five games in 2006-2007, after a difficult start and scheduling, before faltering as continuing injury woes and the nonsensical forced departure of Damian Mori took their toll.
All that said, going into a grand final as premiers and major semi-final winners, I wonder how detrimental the flipside to the underdog mentality is for the Mariners, with other past events in mind. Away to a nine-man Melbourne in round 11 last season, McKinna's men seized up in extraordinary fashion, slowing down their passing and looking indecisive after an aggresive start had put them 3-2 up when Melbourne had 11 players. More embarrassing still was that they gave up a goal and two points, effectively losing 1-0 in the 45 minutes they had two men extra.
The other occasion when the Central Coast found themselves a man or men up relatively early was in an eerily similar game this season, also against Melbourne in Round 11. The Victory were down to 10 men after 22 minutes, but again were by far the better side and took the lead. The home crowd and an assertive Matt Simon helped wake the Mariners up, and they scored two late goals to win the game, but it was becoming ever clearer how much McKinna's team mentally struggled when finding themselves in a significantly ascendant situation.
Further evidence came a month later in the dramatic 5-4 loss to Sydney. Down a man after 16 minutes but 2-0 up, the Mariners suddenly had another passive period and only reawakened when the scoreline was inevitably brought back to 2-2 just after half-time.
The relative difficulty experienced against the sub-standard New Zealand Knights was also telling. Amazingly the Mariners lost at home to the Kiwis in 2005-2006 (New Zealand's only win for the season) while the 1-0 home win later that season and the three results in 2006-2007 (dire 1-0 and 2-0 wins away, 0-0 at home) were real struggles for the Central Coast. Now the Mariners go into their second grand final in a strong position with a week off, and having come off a resounding 3-0 victory over their grand final opponents two weeks earlier.
Perhaps, however, I'm misreading the situation at present. Perhaps last week's comments from Craig Foster (narrow-minded as ever), as well as Newcastle's Jade North at the start of the finals - doing enough misrepresenting to put his pre-2008 Socceroo call-ups to shame - will again stir an underdog mentality.
And perhaps much will depend on who has the lead on Sunday and when. Neither the Mariners, for much of this season and unlike their often commanding 2005-2006 form, or the Jets in recent weeks have looked remotely convincing when leading with a sizeable chunk of the game still to go.
Or perhaps one side will now make the step up to being comfortable and at their best while in an ascendant position. With both teams being so evenly matched (equal points, a tied home-and-away aggregate score after the regulation 180 minutes and five goals each in the five match-ups this season, if you want a statistical comparison), the tipping point will probably be who can best hold their nerve and be the most assertive throughout. As the A-League's two regional teams stand on the brink of an historic national championship, the grand final could serve as a decisive test of which promising region can first truly come of age.