A historic night 10 years ago sets the scene for an A-Leagues clash with huge stakes

Ten years after they went head to head for the title, Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners are finally Isuzu UTE A-League contenders once more, writes Tom Smithies.

Most of all it’s the rain that lingers in the memory 10 years later: the saturated backdrop to a crazy, breathless night in Gosford when the old order was upended by a new kid in town.

March 2, 2013 was notable for many reasons – thousands of fans of a club that was just a few months old marching through Gosford’s drenched town centre, Mat Ryan taking (and missing) a penalty, and most of all the goal from Labinot Haliti that allowed Western Sydney to defeat the Mariners and climb to the top of the table.

A decade on, the fixture is reversed but the stakes at CommBank Stadium are almost as high… and yet no one on either side is taking anything for granted after years of footballing poverty. Too many failed campaigns have passed since March 2013 to do anything but try to enjoy the moment.

At the end of that 2012-13 season, the Mariners would have the last laugh, defeating the Wanderers in the Grand Final after watching the debut club finish top of the table.

“We knew the Premiership was gone that night in Gosford,” recalls Daniel McBreen, playing as the Mariners No 10 on his way to winning the Golden Boot. “But in the dressing room after the game, Graham Arnold reminded us that we’d all set a goal for that season – and he revealed that everyone had written down to win the grand final. It refocused us, became the perfect motivation.”

That would be the Mariners’ fourth Grand Final in eight years, allied to two Premiers Plates; success had become almost expected. When the decline came little more than a year later, it was steep and long lasting. Western Sydney, meanwhile, secured two further grand finals and won the Asian Champions League. Then Tony Popovic left and a miserable five years of mediocrity set in.

That’s why these are heady days for two very different clubs: the well-heeled Wanderers with a contingent of Euro stars against a Mariners team that has gone back to the future in relying largely on homegrown youngsters. It’s the sort of clash of cultures that makes any league fascinating, between two sides level on points and almost level on goal difference. 

But if one of these teams can push ahead and challenge leaders Melbourne City, there’s a sense it would reinforce the ambition to be a heavyweight every season.

Labinot Haliti celebrates scoring the winning goal against the Mariners.

“Monty has been laying the foundations for this Mariners team for a while,” notes McBreen of Central Coast boss Nick Montgomery. “Alen Stajcic lifted the whole club off the canvas and now Monty has taken them to the next level. When he was the head of the Mariners’ academy he developed a lot of these boys, and now he’s reaping the benefit.

“He backs them, gives them confidence, and you can see they play for him and the other staff, they play for each other. They’re young boys playing with freedom.”

Built on a budget, the Mariners are always aiming to overachieve – a very different expectation to the Wanderers who have churned through coaches and players in search of the sort of alchemy that Popovic created in the club’s early years. Marko Rudan is the latest to try, and so far has looked the most likely.

“Rudes has played very heavily on the idea of a Western Sydney identity, trying to build foundations with local players but with a big injection of overseas quality,” says McBreen. “He gets the area because he’s from there, and so far it’s been successful through being hard to beat.

“Judging by the last two games they’re starting to click in attack too, with the introduction of Amor Layouni, Yeni Ngbakoto finding his feet and Brandon Borello adding end product to the industry he’s shown all season.

“I can see Western Sydney being the biggest challenger to Melbourne City once the finals are underway, thanks to that attacking quality.”

In league table terms, with a game in hand (the resumption of the Melbourne derby in which they are 1-0 up), City are almost out of sight. Almost, but not quite – the winner at CommBank Stadium will sustain the chase while it’s still mathematically possible.

Note also that City still have to play both Western Sydney and the Mariners in their run home. Ten years after their last struggle went down to the wire, the latter two will throw everything at securing a repeat.