Mariners head into uncharted waters

After a make-or-break tie against heavyweight opponents, the Mariners are approaching a period of transition that will likely signal the break-up of their champion team.

The glory days have got to end sometime. Maybe this is it. The round of 16 in the AFC Champions League could prove to be the watershed moment for Central Coast Mariners, the most successful club in the Hyundai A-League.

We all know how Dario Conca, the Argentine star of Guangzhou Evergrande, earns more in a couple of months than the Mariners squad earn in a year.

But that's not why this so-called David and Goliath confrontation in the ACL offers such poignancy.

It's the possibility - a likely one - that elimination could signal not just the break-up of the championship-winning squad, but a fork in the road.

The last eight seasons have proved you should never underestimate Central Coast Mariners, but my feeling is that, this time around, there's going to be some pain before the gain. A testing period of transition.

First things first. Graham Arnold, the man who took the team to another level, is being courted by clubs from England, China and South Korea.

Defeat against Evergrande increases the chances of "Arnie" leaving and long-time assistant Phil Moss moving into the hot seat. The man who preceded Arnold - Lawrie McKinna - has recently left the football department, given a lesser role as club ambassador.

Chief executive John McKay has also departed, while former majority shareholder Peter Turnbull is expected to revert to a hands-on role in management. And we've already see how the new owner, Mike Charlesworth, has some different ideas to his predecessor.

For a club that has had arguably the most stable management in the competition, these are potentially seismic changes in the way business is done. Whether the culture will be affected is the crucial aspect, and for that we'll have to wait and see. But you'd wager things are going to be different, whether that's the intention or not.

And then there's the team. Bernie Ibini, Trent Sainsbury and Mat Ryan will all fly to Europe for trials as soon as the tie against Guangzhou Evergrande is over. Patrick Zwaanswijk will retire. And Pedj Bojic is getting some flattering attention from Sydney FC.

That's five starters from the grand final team. With Charlesworth focused on balancing the books, it won't be easy to find replacements. The return of former stars Alex Wilkinson and Matt Simon has been mooted, but most likely they won't be as cheap as they used to be.

The way it's always worked, there's been a ready-made supply of replacements from the youth team. Anthony Caceres, Hayden Morton and Michael Neill may well emerge from the shadows next season. But beyond that?

Truth is, there's been a significant change to the supply line. The arrival of Western Sydney Wanderers means the Mariners no longer have one of Australia's richest nurseries virtually to themselves.

Don't underestimate the determination of the Wanderers to get this right.

The lack of talent to emerge from their NYL side was one of the few disappointments of a memorable debut season. From now on, any good young kid from the western suburbs of Sydney is going to be spoilt for choice.

The Wanderers have the inside running. The recent establishment of an NPL side is an acknowledgement from the Mariners that they need to do better in producing players from their own backyard, but there's bound to be a lag.

None of this is meant to suggest there's a crisis looming. But football always moves in cycles. Even Barcelona are suddenly looking human after all.

The likelihood is that the raft of changes in the dressing room, the boot room, the front office and the boardroom mean the Mariners are set to face the most challenging period of their short history. How they manage the process is going to be interesting, to say the least.

In the meantime Mariners fans should consider the first leg tie against Evergrande as a possible farewell to the title-winning side, and perhaps their title-winning coach, and get out to Bluetongue Stadium.

The only other regional team to have had similar success in the professional era have been Wollongong Wolves, and the saddest aspect of their decline was that the people of the Illawarra never appreciated what they had until it was gone.

If Central Coast are to get through the challenge that now confronts them, they need all the help they can get.