The Central Coast Mariners enjoyed great success both on and off the field last season, with a 3rd placed finish being the highest since the 2013/14 campaign.
Shaun Mielekamp, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Mariners, spoke with Kick360 to discuss Alen Stajcic’s departure, the Central Coast stadium, Mike Charlesworth, the W-League license and more.
Alen Stajcic’s departure and Nick Montgomery
Alen Stajcic became caretaker manager for the Mariners on the 12th of March in 2019. He proved an instant formula, with the Mariners winning against arch-rivals Newcastle in a thrilling 3-2 game, just four days after he was appointed.
The Mariners mustered one final win on the second-last matchday of the season – meaning Stajcic had won more games (2) in six matches than in the other 21 match days of the season (1).
The following year, the 47-year-old couldn’t shake off the dreaded wooden spoon, but there were still evident signs of improvement on the field.
It was the previous campaign where the former Matildas coach produced his true magic – the Mariners finished third in the league, but Stajcic called it quits at the end of the season.
“Alen (Stajcic) left for Alen’s reasons, and in fact Alen and I are really close – we caught up a few days ago for a chat”, said Mielekamp.
“Alen came to the Mariners to gain some great credibility as a mens coach as well as his great success in the women’s game, so he was able to achieve that in an outstanding fashion.
“For us, we were looking for a coach to regain our credibility on the field and take the hard work onto the field.
“There was a bit of mission accomplished with Stajcic, and I’m confident he would agree.
“When it came to what next and moving forward, Alen’s aspirations and directions were moving away from those of the club”.
There’s no deal of bitterness from the Mariners CEO, who fondly remembers that stunning final campaign under the helm of Stajcic.
“We talk at our club about producing players, but also producing coaches and also producing staff members”, he said.
“So it’s with great pride for us that we have a variety of former staff members working for FIFA, working for the A-League and in great roles throughout the industry.
“What Stajcic did was allow the Mariners to run the club our way, to believe in us and to back ourselves, within whatever budgets and constraints and all that from the outside looking in.
“The word belief became very important to the club coming forward.”
And that epitomizes the Mariners’ new coach, Nick Montgomery, who played 116 A-League games for the Mariners, and was a key part of winning their solitary championship.
“The advantage that Monty’s (Montgomery’s) got is that he’s been here for a long time”, said Mielekamp.
“There’s not many people that know the Mariners as well as Nick Montgomery, top to bottom – what’s good, what’s bad and what’s indifferent.”
Montgomery possesses a wealth of experience in the English top divisions, having played 26 games in the Premier League and 188 in the Championship, England’s second division.
“He brings not only that, but the amazing experience of being a Premier League player”, said the CEO.
“I think in this country it’s really underestimated what a top player he was.
“He’s already got so much credibility and respect from the playing group.”
The 39-year-old will be the second youngest coach at the start of the season, showcasing how the Mariners want to develop young talent on and off the field.
“This is a core part of the Mariners. We say we give youth a chance, and this is fundamentally what we try to bring to the A-League”, said Mielekamp.
“We haven’t always got it right, we haven’t always been developing players and that has been at times in parallel with the on field performance.
“An important part of youth development is being in a successful team, and that’s something we saw from Montgomery in the NPL 2 when we won that league.
“Gianni Stensness, Jing Reec and Alou Kuol, who was an absolute shining light for us last campaign all headed off to Europe.”
Mielekamp empathises with fans that remiss seeing players depart, but outlines the system the Mariners have in place to keep stability and quality within their squad in the long term.
“Sometimes it’s hard for fans to look at that in the first instance, but what happens as a result of that is that the next line of the crop that comes in becomes really important”, he said.
“A player sitting behind a marquee in a big club might not get his chance in those clubs, whereas they look at the Mariners as this is where I can make my name and do great things.
“For every player that goes off to Europe, ten more are lining up, and that becomes a key part of our success on the field and off the field.
“The money we make from the transfers allows us to reinvest into the academy.
“To make sure the academy itself has the resources and the right number of coaches is a financial burden, so we make sure that money gets invested back into the academy to facilitate further growth of the next up and coming players and coaches.”
Mielekamp also mentions how “an important part of youth development is being in a successful team”, which illustrates the signings they’ve made in the offseason, who were signed for the purpose of imminent first-team integration
Noah Smith (20) will likely start at left-back in place of the departed Clisby, while Beni N’Kololo (24), Cy Goddard (24) and Nicolai Muller (33) will push for attacking midfield or wide midfield spots, depending on the system Montgomery operates within.
Meanwhile, the Mariners’ signing spree hasn’t concluded yet, with Mielekamp confirming they’re still working on bringing in a few more players.
“We definitely do have recruits to bring in, we’re working hard in that space”, he said.
“We have VISA spots available – Monty’s strategy has been to have those spots in attacking positions so I think we’ll see a continuation of that.
“We need to find another goalkeeper to make sure we’ve got support and someone pushing Birighitti, and then there’s opportunities there for the right Aussies, in particular through the defensive line and as squad players.”
The economical aspects of the Mariners
But while on-field performance hasn’t always been up to standard, Mielekamp explains how things have been different from an economical, financial point of view.
“The perception that’s there, is that instability has mainly been because of the on field performance”, he said.
“Whereas anyone who’s been on the ground and has seen the steps taken off the field will see the stability in the centre of excellence and steps taken in the last six or seven years.
“And I suppose, all of those decisions have been longer term. We have had to make hard, short term decisions and continue to do so in all fairness.”
However, he also expresses the positivity surrounding the deal with Viacom, 10 and Paramount Plus, outlining how it can make the Mariners a more viable commodity moving forwards.
“In terms of Viacom, 10 and Paramount Plus, it’s a really good signal of stability and long term growth of the league, and with the clubs now running the league, we’ve got a stakehold in that”, said Mielekamp.
“I think that last season showed what the Mariners bring to the league.
“We don’t operate like some other clubs operate, but I don’t think people want every club to operate in the same way.
“I think people enjoy that variety, but what we needed to prove is that our model can be successful on the field as well as stable off the field.
“There’s definitely been some tough times, but they’ve been for a reason and we’re starting to see the benefit of that.”
Central Coast Stadium
Within actions that could make the Mariners more of a valuable club and proposition, Mielekamp believes that the Central Coast Stadium is linked to a stable, successful future.
However, he does bring light to the differences between the public view and the internal view within the Central Coast club on the stadium and possible purchasing.
“Just to confirm, it’s not a matter of buying the stadium – the stadium isn’t up for sale even though that’s been the perception that’s out there”, he said.
“Where the key parts for the club has been is that we have to have other revenue streams.
“So if you look at NRL clubs, or other models that are there, clubs that don’t have huge memberships need other revenue streams.
“At the moment it is a high priority for the club to finalise long term commitments around the stadium.
“Unfortunately, right now, there’s not much more I can say because there’s a tender process underway which is continuing throughout the remainder of this year.
“The future of our club is intrinsically tied to the stadium.”
Meanwhile, committing to the future of the stadium, plus the W-League licence the Mariners have received could show stability in the form of their owner, Mike Charlesworth.
Mielekamp has nothing but praise for the Englishman.
“I think it’s important for everyone to see there’s proof in the pudding for Mike in regards to the stability of the club”, he said.
“Whilst there has been media and talk that’s been there, Mike has been rock solid for this club, and rock solid through COVID-19.
“Other clubs have had changing of ownership and have been into far more dramatic situations than we have during COVID, so that’s an absolute credit to Mike.”
However, the CEO outlines the importance of the club to remain stable within its finances, considering the current feelings of Charlesworth.
“In saying that, Mike has no appetite to keep on losing money just for the sake of it when he’s in England and we’re here in Australia”, he said.
“The responsibility of the club to be able to sustain ourselves financially is really important.
“Whether that’s other business units that come in to sustain losses, or player sales, it becomes very important.
“It gets missed sometimes that Mike puts plenty of money in the club to keep it alive, and he does this with a plan, and with intentions for the long term benefit of the club.
“Throwing short term money at something for a sugar hit has never been his strategy, and at times it’s hard for the fans to understand that but internally we know the long term stability of the club and the journey is fundamental to our success.”
Longer term investments of the Gosford-based club include facilities upgrades at the Mariners’ centre of excellence.
“Facilities aren’t something the fans always see – that’s why I talk about the long term improvements of the club”, said Mielekamp.
“It’s been such a simple thing that we wanted our head coach to have an office.
“We were able to expand our physio facilities which gave us a restructure and allowed Monty (Montgomery) to have his own private office space so he can close the door and have a 1 on 1 with some players.
“That’s something that we’ve wanted since way back in Lawrie McKinna’s days.
“That investment has become possible from the success that we had commercially last season. It’s not only the first team but the academy that benefits from that.”
The W-League licence
While Mielekamp didn’t comment on the specifics of W-League facilities, he was ecstatic at the fact that they managed to secure a license, and labels it as a completing of the brand.
“I suppose in many aspects, it’s already set up for us. We already have our own Women’s academy, which many other W-League teams don’t have”, he said.
“For us, the drive to make sure that the women have absolute parity to the A-League men becomes fundamental.
“To make sure they have good resources at their disposal, to make sure we hit the ground running and have success is vital.
“But then this ties into the Women’s World Cup, where we are in a submission with the Central Coast council to be a base camp for one of those teams, and to be able to capitalize on that so that there’s a legacy for Womens football on the coast.
“There’s a bit of a feeling of about time – we’ve got sponsors that want to get on board, we’ve got great opportunities in an untapped market.”
And Mielekamp also points out that this is in fact the Mariners’ first shot at a team with a W-League license, with the records allowing for mis-contextualisation.
“It’s important to debunk the myth that the previous one was done because of lack of funding”, said the Mariners CEO.
“The previous Mariners W-League team was not run by the Mariners, it was run by Football NSW under the Mariners brand.
“The Mariners haven’t ever had a W-League team, our brand has.
“The reality is that this is our first crack at our W-League team.”
The supporters trust and fans
Within the fans and supporters realm, the lifeblood of the football club, Mielekamp provided updates on the Central Coast Mariners supporters trust, and on how they’re looking to capitalise on their on field success from last campaign, and convert it to high attendance numbers on a regular basis.
“There’s been a lot of progress (with the supporters’ trust), they’re doing a great job”, he said.
“We speak regularly and we’ve been continuing to work through the model and the understanding of what that looks like.
“Right now, it’s about making sure there’s good clarity about how the engagement will look, and within the next 12 months we’ll see that start to escalate.”
And on the fans, Mielekamp highlighted the movement of people down the Coast, plus the investment into simple facilities around the stadium as key cogs in their development of memberships.
“Our perspective is that the growth and improvement of Gosford is fundamental to this”, he said.
“Simple things – there’s a great brewery that’s opened up right near our stadium and our fans get there and create a matchday experience that isn’t just about the 90 minute of football.
“That becomes vital, and the more we can engage the other businesses that are around Gosford will be part of the big success of crowds.
“The Central Coast is booming right now – people are looking to leave Sydney and move up the coast, and that’s going to convert as more people live on the Coast.
“It’s a key part of the overall package, and we have to make sure we keep performing on the field, engaging with the community and making sure that kids love coming to matchdays.
“I loved seeing kids running up and down and following Alou Kuol when he’s doing his warm up – that stuff happens organically.”