Where now for Arnold’s champions?

It’s not unusual for A-League champions to slip the following season. But Graham Arnold’s Central Coast Mariners could suffer more than most as the look to replicate their title triumph.

It-s not unusual for A-League champions to slip down the ladder the following season. But Graham Arnold-s Central Coast Mariners will suffer more than most as the look to replicate their title triumph.

The break-up of Arnold-s successful squad looks set to be the cause of some major pain for the league-s smallest club.

There-s no doubting the coach-s skills in nurturing talent and building a side capable of challenging for honours, but the club looks set to pay the price for those accomplishments.

In the few weeks since the end of the season, the Mariners have lost the core of their defensive unit, the foundation of the championship, with Mat Ryan, Pedj Bojic leaving and veteran Patrick Zwaanswijk retiring.

Bernie Ibini has left for China, followed - temporarily at least - by Golden Boot winner Daniel McBreen, who will miss the first four weeks of the A-League season due to his five-month loan stint with Shanghai SIPG.

And that might not be all. Oliver Bozanic is rumoured to be on his way to Europe, while classy centreback Trent Sainsbury-s future has been the subject of some conjecture since before the A-League season even finished.

And coming in? So far, only returning striker Matt Simon. Arnold has plenty of work ahead to keep the Mariners as a force in the competition.

Only one man has so far managed to successfully retain the A-League championship. Ange Postecoglou did it with his record-breaking Brisbane Roar side, a group of players who were, either through age or circumstance, less likely to be lured away to Europe or Asia.

Keeping the core of a successful squad together is always going to a major challenge for any A-League coach. Arnold knows this and has dealt with it before - just not on this scale.

The Mariners coped well enough when they lost the likes of Simon, Alex Wilkinson Mustafa Amini and Rostyn Griffiths. But those players left as individuals, not as part of some larger group migration.

The Mariners will have to start again, within the existing $2.6 million salary cap. Arnold will look to blood his next crop of youngsters, with the likes of Michael Neill, Anthony Caceres, and Nick Fitzgerald stepping into the holes left by their predecessors.

But rebuilding that squad won-t be an easy task for a club not exactly flushed with money.

Arnold told The World Game the club are considering asking FFA for special dispensation to sign six foreign players, similar to the allowance granted to Western Sydney Wanderers in their debut season.

Sounds fair enough - but are FFA likely do the same favour for an established club? That doesn-t sound like the FFA I know…

Alongside the usual selection of technically adept Europeans looking for a lifestyle change, the Mariners boss said he might turn to Africa as a source of cheap, available talent - it-s an interesting option, a market largely untapped by Australian clubs and would be symbolic of the A-League-s growth within the global game.

And this decision to look overseas illustrates Arnold-s desire for success and the Mariners- growth strategy; development of local players cannot come at the expense of the club-s ability to compete.

Even after their grand final triumph, the Mariners face an ongoing battle to retain their place among domestic football-s elite and Australia-s cutthroat sporting marketplace.

The club were rumoured to be subject to a takeover bid by ambitious Victorian state league side South Melbourne just weeks before the grand final, and new owner Mike Charlesworth has been open about the financial issues the club faces.

Success breeds success and the Mariners have to remain competitive. How Graham Arnold will do that with a team shorn of some of its most talented individuals is perhaps the biggest question of the A-League-s off-season.