Trust the process: Mark Jackson hails Mariners’ togetherness after shaky start

Mark Jackson calls it the “bombshell moment”, when he announced to his family that he’d accepted a job offer on the other side of the world.

Seven months on since the Englishman took over the Mariners, it feels like the bombshells haven’t really stopped coming.

    The title-winning team that lost most of its players, its coach and even its CEO was meant to struggle this season, but nobody told Jackson and his revamped squad. On Wednesday they won the A-League Men’s Premier’s Plate, and can add the AFC Cup to the club’s honours roll in the early hours of Monday morning (AEST).

    But that topline summary doesn’t even hint at the dramas along the way that the Central Coast have segued past like a team on Strictly Come Dancing. The first four games of their A-League Men title defence ended in defeat, as did their first group game in the AFC Cup, putting Jackson under immediate pressure after he had succeeded Nick Montgomery.

    Striker Marco Tulio became another departure in January, despite having scored so many goals in the AFC Cup that he remains the competition’s top scorer. Another player, Angel Torres, was arrested and suspended. The team was stranded in Kyrgyzstan by the implausible force majeure of flooding in the Middle East.

    It got to the point where a plague of locusts travelling to eat the grass at Central Coast Stadium seemed only a matter of time. And yet, on Thursday night, Jackson and his squad were boarding a flight to Oman, just 90 minutes away from becoming only the second Australian team to conquer Asia and with that Premier’s Plate still gleaming from the silver polish applied 24 hours before.

    Combine that with the Club Championship won through the combined results of the Mariners’ men’s and women’s teams, and the vindication of how the club managed the turnover from last season is enormous.

    From the outside, it’s fair to say, that process had seemed rather more precarious last November after those early and consecutive A-League defeats. Jackson, though, seemed as unbothered then as he is now.

    “When you truly believe in something, in a process, it’s not hard,” the Englishman tells “You have belief in what you can do and where it will take you – but that doesn’t mean there’s not an element of hardship along the way, especially early on.

    “It took courage for everyone to stand together. I told the players the other day, it took courage from them and the staff I inherited to still believe that we were on the right path and to stand shoulder to shoulder.

    “They could have said, ‘What’s going on, who is this guy?’ But instead, we’ve developed over the season, and I really believe we’re nowhere near the finished article.”

    The statistics tell the story of what a season of endurance this has become – flights totalling the best part of 100,000km, trips to six different countries, a squad with 12 departures from last season before this campaign had even begun.

    Title defences aren’t meant to be straightforward, but even so the Mariners have done it in any number of hard ways. After the final early on Monday will be another lengthy flight back for the A-League semifinals – the pursuit of success comes with a physical tax.

    “If you can adapt you can achieve anything, and a big word we use is opportunity,” responds Jackson.

    “That’s absolutely the key. We’re given an opportunity to perform on these stages, just like I was given an opportunity to move to the other side of the world and build something.

    “I saw the success the club had last year but you have to evolve and that can be hard, especially with that turnover of players. Our business model is to sell players, so we need that conveyor belt of talent from the academy.

    “But every one of these obstacles is an opportunity. It’s easy to sulk when things seem to go against you, and take your ball home.

    “Or you can respond. When we lose a game it’s an opportunity to get better. We review things all the time to squeeze everything we can out of our players.”

    When Jackson adds that he and his coaching staff’s mantra is, “We plan, we do, we review,” it might sound to a cynic like Bob The Builder’s take on management philosophy. Yet moments in the season underscore its effectiveness – like taking the squad for a walk up a mountain while stranded in Kyrgyzstan, so that some of its younger members could feel snow for the first time, rather than sitting resentfully in their hotel.

    In Jackson the Mariners seem to have found the perfect figure to build on the culture and aspiration ingrained by Nick Montgomery and which led to last season’s grand final victory.

    Sporting director Matt Simon jokes that Jackson “is addicted to work” and says the club “has been so lucky” in its head coach appointment – though that rather underplays the diligence of the recruitment process that led to Jackson getting a call from Simon in September, offering him the job.

    “I knew what the club had achieved under Monty because I knew him, but there’ll always be differences in style and how you do things,” Jackson says now.

    “For me it was very much about evolution, not revolution. I’m still getting to know the history, the community, even the people around the club – but I knew from the start there was the opportunity to create something special.

    “The Mariners have an unbelievable connection with their fans, like a family feeling, and it’s something we want to nurture. The culture is evolving and a big part of it is how successful the women’s team were in their first season and getting to work with someone like [Liberty A-League head coach] Emily Husband.

    “It’s not just about us, we are part of one club. Of course you have little subcultures within that but there has to be a common thread that pulls you all together.

    “That’s why this is all so exciting.”

    Written by Tom Smithies for

    AFC Cup Final Match Details

    Al-Ahed vs Central Coast Mariners

    Monday, 6 May 2024

    Kick-off: 2:00am AEST

    Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Muscat, Oman

    Live on 10 Bold, 10 Play

    /Public Release. View in full here.