The Great White Hope

AFW talks to Central Coast Mariners local hero Matt Simon

His team-mates might affectionately refer to him by his pale complexion, but MATT SIMON has lit up the scoring charts and could hold the key to Mariners- finals chances

This time last year the world looked a lot different for Central Coast Mariners striker Matt Simon. He was always an undeniable talent, but that elusive first goal wasn-t forthcoming. John Aloisi had just completed a successful stint in Gosford and his strike partner at the time, Sasho Petrovski, was making it hard for Simon to get a game.

When Aloisi left at the end of last season coach Lawrie McKinna strengthened his attacking options by bringing Dylan Macallister back to Australia and long-term injuries to other striker Nik Mrdja looked to be past him. With Simon struggling for goals, the start of the 2008/09 season looked like being make-or-break for the young striker.

Fast forward to the present and Simon now stands as the club-s top scorer after the regular season, with 11 goals, and a recent Socceroos debut as a substitute against Indonesia in the Asian Cup qualifier. What a difference 12 months have made.

“Lawrie had a chat with me [before the start of this season] and said that as soon as I got my first goal I wouldn-t need to worry about it anymore… and he was right,” Simon remembers. And that first goal didn-t take long for Simon to achieve.

After returning from a month away on Olympic duty with the Olyroos - an experience Simon says was “very helpful” - the striker came off the bench in round one, away to defending champions Newcastle Jets, to head Mariners into a 1-0 lead with three minutes remaining. Although the game ended 1-1, there was much personal triumph for Simon and his self belief.

“When that first goal went in I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders and that I could now play without worrying,” he says. “Confidence is a big part of my game, like it is any striker-s, but I didn-t need to worry anymore about what would happen when I shoot.”

That first goal proved to be the catalyst that-s seen Simon scoop 11 goals this season, one behind eventual golden boot winner Shane Smeltz. “I would have been happy if I-d scored one… the coaching staff wouldn-t have been though,” Simon says cheekily. “I-m absolutely over the moon with 11, one more would have been nice, but it wasn-t to be.

“It-s a stepping stone once again and hopefully I can do that on a consistent basis.”

Reaping benefits Reward for Simon-s season came in the form of a call up to national coach Pim Verbeek-s all-A-League squad to face Indonesia. Although starting on the bench, the Mariners striker entered the fray after 57 minutes, giving him a meaningful first debut, as apposed to a token two-minute appearance in stoppage time.

“To get some good game time was very special, it-s a moment I-ll never forget,” says Simon. “To play for the Socceroos is special and to be among the squad with the best players in the A-League was pretty good too.”

Not that Simon realised this immediately. “It didn-t really hit me until I got back to the hotel, what I had just done,” he says. “We had a presentation of all the players receiving their first cap off Pim and that-s when it really hit me that I-d just played for the Socceroos.”

It was a tough assignment for all the Socceroos against Indonesia in less-than-favourable conditions, but national recognition aside, it-s now time to re-shift focus back to domestic matters: namely, the finals and Simon is relishing the upcoming series after his stellar goal-scoring season.

“I-m looking forward to playing finals football and I-ll be concentrating on playing well and doing what I-ve been doing all year,” he says. “Hopefully I-ll get a couple of goals in the finals and that-ll be awesome.”

While Simon brims with confidence, there-s a concern the team might be struggling for form going into the finals on the back of three defeats, but Simon doesn-t share the pessimism. “We-re not too concerned; the boys know we have to pick ourselves up and there-s not a lot we can do about that [the defeats] now, we-re in the finals and anything can happen in finals football,” he believes.

Pressure remains on the striker-s shoulders, though, but instead of looking to fulfil potential, it-s about backing it up and proving his scoring streak is no fluke. The finals are the ideal stage on which to do that. “We-ve got four quality strikers at the club and they-re all capable of scoring crucial goals.

“The pressure-s on in training and there-s pressure to even get a spot in the team - whoever gets the nod to play in the finals will be able to do the job,” Simon says in admiration of his fellow strikers.

First up on the road to the grand final for Simon and his Mariners team-mates are Queensland Roar. “It-s always tough playing Queensland, they-re a bit of a bogey team at Bluetongue so hopefully we can turn that around and get the win,” says Simon. “We-ll be up for a physical battle and getting in their faces for 90 minutes - whoever-s more up for the match will come out on top.”

And if Central Coast Mariners as a team show the grit and determination Simon has this season to not only fulfil his scoring potential, but to continually strive for that next step, then the team who finished out the regular season with three defeats - and subsequently become less fancied for the title - might just prove a few doubters wrong… much like their top scorer.