Central Coast setting the standard
The Mariners deserve all the recognition from the emphatic defeat of Melbourne Victory. All of it. Talk about a statement of intent.
At full-time at a monsoonal Bluetongue Stadium last weekend, Graham Arnold picked up his brolly and made the effort to walk 50 metres out into the centre of the pitch to shake the hand of referee Strebre Delovski.
That's how pleased he was. That's how good Central Coast Mariners were in putting Melbourne Victory to the sword. For once the notoriously hard-to-please Arnold was feeling generous.
So he should have been. The Mariners were magnificent. But still he couldn't help himself as he faced the press.
Asked if he was happy, he replied: ''Happy? We let in two goals.'' This time, though, he didn't really mean it.
If you know Arnold well enough, you know he was as relaxed as he's ever likely to be. His team hadn't simply passed their biggest test of the season, they'd blitzed it.
The two goals conceded - an own goal from Trent Sainsbury and a clumsy challenge from a pumped-up Mitchell Duke that gifted the visitors a penalty - put an undeserved gloss on the scoreline for a Victory side, which only a fortnight earlier had nursed their own minor premiership ambitions. Those hopes have been smashed.
Ange Postecoglou, who had been rather tetchy after the back-to-back defeats to Adelaide United and Western Sydney Wanderers, was far more philosophical on this occasion. No complaints about the scoreline, and a hint of praise for the opposition. The respect he has for Arnold might be part of that.
Whenever Melbourne Victory lose, there's a tendency to focus on what they did wrong rather than what the opposition did right. That's the aura that comes from being the biggest club in the country. It tends to irk opposing coaches, players, and clubs that they often don't get the credit they feel they deserve.
The Mariners deserve all the recognition from this emphatic display. All of it. Talk about a statement of intent.
Central Coast won every one-on-one contest. Their rotations created havoc. Their energy, and stamina, on a heavy pitch was exceptional.
Tactically, Arnold's decision to have Daniel McBreen playing as a no.10 instead of Mike McGlinchey proved a masterstroke.
McGlinchey exploited the flanks to perfection - grabbing his first-ever hat-trick - while McBreen's superhuman workrate nullified Mark Milligan's influence as the fulcrum of the Victory's passing game. A win-win.
McBreen could even afford to blast a penalty against the crossbar, and with a bit more composure in front of goal the Mariners might have scored a few more.
This, we should remember, in a crunch game against a close challenger, blended with the added pressure of knowing the Wanderers had just jumped past them into top spot. Ninety minutes later, normal service had resumed.
Certainly long-time Mariners fans were purring in appreciation. Over eight seasons of the Hyundai A-League, no club has won more games than Central Coast. But it's taken a while for the performances to catch up to the results. The quality of football now being produced is as good as any I've seen - and that includes Brisbane Roar at their peak.
The Mariners, of course, have done all this on a shoestring budget. From the grand final starting XI of two years ago - four players (Alex Wilkinson, Rostyn Griffiths, Mustafa Amini and Matt Simon) - have left, and another, Adam Kwasnik, has been barely sighted because of injury.
For a club with limited resources to not only cover those losses, but improve on them, says a lot about the quality of coaching, the attitude of the players, and benchmarks that are being set.
All that will, of course, be put to the test again this weekend. Western Sydney are coming to town for the first time, and bringing thousands of their noisy fans with them. Bluetongue Stadium might even be sold out.
If you subscribe to the media hype, all the momentum is falling behind the Wanderers, who have won their last seven. Even Phil Rothfield in Sydney's Daily Telegraph has jumped on the bandwagon.
Truth is, the Mariners are used to working on the fringes. In fact they feed off it.
But there are a couple of salient points to consider ahead of what could be a Premier's Plate decider. The Mariners have already gone to Parramatta twice this season, and returned home with four points from six. And no team has scored more goals this season and conceded less.
Central Coast are not at the top of the table by default. They're there because they've earned it. The price of that success is about to unfold as the Mariners deal with the twin challenges of the business end of the Hyundai A-League season, and the group phase of the Asian Champions League.
It's going to be hectic, and tough, and exhausting. Cue the doubters. The Mariners, after all, have played in three grand finals and lost them all. And they've never made it to the knockout stage of the ACL.
But that's then. This is now. There's a different vibe around the dressing room these days. A lot more swagger, and a bit more chill. And that includes Arnold.
Other coaches have long known how good the Mariners are. Just think how many of their players you'd like in your team. What's changed is that the Mariners are starting to learn how to believe in themselves.
How far have they come? A long way, as far as I'm concerned. And we don't have to wait long to find out.