Mariners settle four-horse race
It was the most dramatic and unpredictable finale to a regular season in the Australian A-League's fledgling history, and the outcome was a first-ever Premiership title for Central Coast Mariners.
The measure of just how tight this battle for top spot proved to be is that no fewer than four sides were locked on an identical points tally heading into the final weekend, with the Mariners ultimately beating local rivals Newcastle Jets to the prize by virtue of a solitary goal. Never before in over a century of national football competitions in Australia had so many title contenders been so closely-packed ahead of the last round of matches, and it was the New South Wales outfit - considered to be one the league's smaller franchises - who kept their nerve to emerge on top and succeed previous 'Premiers' Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory.
"I simply couldn't be more proud of the effort of each of the boys that we have here at the club," was the reaction of Mariners' football manager Lawrie McKinna. "To win the A-League Premiership takes a very special team effort. We will celebrate tonight, but tomorrow we will look ahead to the Finals Series, where we will again be hopeful of adding another very special trophy to our cabinet."
The Finals Series to which McKinna refers is the play-off system that pits Australia's top four against each other in two-legged semi-finals followed by a Grand Final, and this year the competition will have the added twist of reuniting the four closest-matched Premiership contenders to date.
Aloisi brothers in opposition
After all, it was Queensland Roar - the team who ultimately ended up in fourth position - who led the standings going into the final weekend, although pole position changed hands as early as Friday evening, when Newcastle Jets beat Perth Glory 2-1 in front of a 16,212 crowd.
That left the Mariners, whose game against Wellington Phoenix was next to kick off on the Saturday night, needing to win by a two-goal margin to leapfrog their New South Wales rivals. Wellington, the A-League's newest New Zealand representatives, had been left propping up the division at the end of a tough debut campaign, but for a considerable time it appeared that the Kiwis would frustrate their hosts at rain-sodden Bluetongue Stadium.
However, despite heading into the half-time break with the game goalless, Mariners found inspiration in the shape of their talismanic Socceroo John Aloisi, the same striker who proved so crucial in turning around Australia's 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ opener against Japan. The second half had barely got underway when Aloisi, playing against a Wellington team that included his older brother, Ross, broke the deadlock with an acrobatic header that was matched by his equally agile celebration over the pitch-side advertising boards.
But if the 9,849 fans who braved the driving rain to watch this match expected that this would be the signal for the floodgates to open, they were to be much mistaken. Instead, it took until the final minute of stoppage time for their victory - and, as it proved, the Premiership title - to be sealed, although 24-year-old Adam Kwasnick's scorching left-foot clincher was a goal fit to settle any occasion.
Roar go out with a whimper
The Mariners, without a win in their previous four matches, were back on top. However, there could be no celebrations with the knowledge that Sydney FC and Queensland Roar - both of whom were in action the following day - could quite conceivably snatch the title away.
Sydney needed only to replicate the Mariners' two-goal winning margin to seize top spot, but despite the impressive backing of a 33,458 crowd, they could only manage a 2-2 home draw with last season's champions, Melbourne Victory, and were left to settle for third place.
The task for Queensland Roar, kicking off later the same
evening, was even more straightforward: a win, by any margin, and
the Premier's Plate was theirs. This, however, proved more
difficult than envisaged, with the trip to Adelaide United's
Hindmarsh Stadium witnessing one of the Queenslanders' least
inspiring performances of the season.
In the end, their southern rivals ran out comfortable and deserved 2-0 winners and, to add insult to injury, the Roar's combustible former Manchester City midfielder Danny Tiatto also received a red card following a clash with Adelaide's Travis Dodd. So it was that Queensland slipped from first to fourth in the standings, leaving their coach, former Socceroos boss Frank Farina, to lament: "We just didn't move the ball around; we couldn't keep possession in the first 18-20 minutes before they scored. We didn't play well."
Fortunately for Farina's side, and indeed their Newcastle and Sydney counterparts, the format of the Australian season means that they do not have to wait long to atone for their Premiership disappointment. After all, the A-League Finals Series kicks off this week, with Sydney hosting Queensland in the first leg of their semi-final and Newcastle staging the opening instalment of the all-New South Wales clash with the newly-crowned Premiers.
If the series can prove anywhere near as dramatic as the A-League's regular season, no-one Down Under will be found complaining.