Loanees the leaders in Central Coast Mariners' morale-boosting draw
Three newcomers combined with a Hyundai A-League veteran to steer a brave Central Coast Mariners to their hard-earned 1-1 draw with Sydney FC on Sunday.
Forced to persevere through sustained second-half pressure, the unfancied outsiders demonstrated admirable resolve in frustrating the Sky Blues either side of Adam Le Fondre's equaliser.
That arrived from the spot in the 76th minute but, unlike in previous outings, the visitors refused to wilt at Leichhardt Oval, thanks largely to an unlikely quartet.
Ben Kennedy, whose form has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, was particularly impressive in setting a solid base from which the inexperienced players in front of him were able to perform free of anxiety.
The best of the goalkeeper's seven saves was a clever close-range denial of Milos Ninkovic in the 90th minute that ensured Mike Mulvey's men curtailed a four-game losing streak.
Kennedy, 31, was ably supported by 18-year-old Sam Graham, who recorded 10 clearances and three interceptions as part of a youthful three-man central defensive shield alongside Jonathan Aspropotamitis and Jack Clisby.
Graham, a composed presence at the back, joined the Gosford club on a temporary basis from Championship outfit Sheffield United in January and he wasn't the only Blades loanee to catch the eye.
Handed a starting debut against no less an opponent than the reigning Premiers, Stephen Mallon provided energy and enthusiasm on the left flank as his team-high seven recoveries of possession – allied to the 14 duels he contested – presented the picture of a player acutely aware of the wide-ranging responsibilities of a wing-back.
Indeed, it was a day for the loanees with Aiden O'Neill – a promising Australian midfielder with Premier League experience at Burnley – having earlier handed the Mariners a half-time lead.
An unerring side-footed finish from the top of the box marked his third goal of the campaign.
While it wasn't enough to secure all three points, the measured strike was symbolic of the part Central Coast's fresh-faced reinforcements played in achieving a result that will infuse the wider squad with greater belief.