Central Coast Mariners 1-2 Newcastle Jets

“303 DAYS WITHOUT A WIN” read the homemade banner held aloft by the long-suffering Mariners faithful before kick-off.

Their winless torment will continue for at least another 8 days as their side blew a 1-0 lead to lose to their hated rivals for the fourth time running.

Matt Simon’s header gave them something to cheer about heading into the interval, but the Jets gradually turned the screw in the second, with goals to Jason Hoffman and Ronald Vargas enough to secure the three points.

Roy O’Donovan made his long-awaited return from suspension to start upfront for the Jets, while Mike Mulvey omitted Kalifa Cisse from the squad, and handed Mario Shabow his first A-League start.

The match began with familiar aggression and intensity, with a succession of fouls and half-chances from counter attacks and set pieces.

Dimi Petratos had the first clear sight on goal in the 16th minute, doing well to control a looping flick-on in the box, before volleying high and wide under pressure from Jack Clisby.

Petratos then saw his 25th minute free kick well saved by Mariners keeper Adam Pearce, and from the resulting corner, Jair blasted an acrobatic volley well over the crossbar.

10 minutes later, the Mariners found their lead. Daniel Georgievski could only clear a long diagonal as far as Matt Millar, who surged forward and played a neat one-two with Matt Simon. Simon then turned and busted a gut to arrive at the back post in time for the cross, eluding the attention of Nigel Boogard and heading home from six yards.

The goal was pure Matt Simon – physicality, desperation, aggression, and more than a hint of the dark arts: replays revealed he had a good fistful of Nikolai Topor-Stanley’s jersey as he played the return pass to Millar.

Tempers continued to flare in the aftermath of the goal, with Jason Hoffman, Connor Pain, Mario Shabow, and even Glen Moss all booked in quick succession. A melee near the left hand touchline was the source of most of the consternation, with Pain reacting after being felled one too many times, sparking a push-and-shove involving at least 15 players. Referee Alex King was forced to give both teams a talking to in the tunnel at halftime as the game began to get out of hand.

After he’d struggled to keep his cool in the first half, Vargas began the second with a gorgeous, Bergkamp-esque turn to bamboozle Kye Rowles, who was forced to bring him down crudely just outside the box. The resulting free kick was tame, but the breathtaking skill was a sign of things to come. The Mariners, who’d fought and scrapped for every ball, were clearly up against it in terms of technique.

Football is so often a game of sliding doors moments, and in the 62nd minute the Mariners were gifted a golden opportunity to double their advantage. With Pain nipping at his heels, Hoffman took an errant touch in the backline, allowing the nippy winger in on goal. Through clean 1v1 with daylight from any defenders, Pain snatched at the chance, his weak right-footed effort well within Moss’ grasp. The rueful look on Pain’s face summed it up: he simply hadn’t realised how much time he’d had.

Just 4 minutes later, Hoffman went from potential villain to hero, rising highest to meet Jair’s corner and squeezing his header under the desperate dive of Pearce. The otherwise excellent Millar was the defender at fault, failing to mark goal-side or even contest the jump.

Ernie Merrick sensed opportunity beckoning, and soon sent on Kaine Sheppard for Jair. The former Avondale striker had the ball back of the net in the 79th minute, but his header was correctly adjudged offside. Nevertheless, Newcastle now had the Mariners pinned back on the edge of their own box, desperately hoping to cling onto a point.

Two minutes later the Jets found the winner that their second half play had richly deserved. Substitute Sheppard played a brilliant lofted pass to Vargas, whose first touch was delicate, and his second was lethal, powering the ball past the helpless Pearce and sending the rambunctious Newcastle away fans – who numbered nearly half the crowd – into ecstasy.

Usual service resumed as the Novocastrians belted out an acapella rendition of their adopted club anthem, INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”, and the result from thereon seemed fait accompli. A sickening loss for the Mariners, who turned in one of their better displays of the season but were ultimately outclassed.

The result means the Jets climb to 7th, while Central Coast have now broken the New Zealand Knights’ unwanted record: the worst ever start to an A-League season through the first nine games. Given the Auckland club folded before the end of that campaign, Mike Mulvey’s men – and in particular owner Mike Charlesworth – had better get their act together in January, as reinforcements are sorely needed.

Josh Parish