Normally when a team wins the A-League Men Grand Final -- or any final or league, for that matter -- the celebratory trophy lift is reserved for players and staff associated with the squad, a private moment of jubilation staged on a very public stage. The 2022-23 ALM decider, however, wasn't a normal game and even more pertinently, newly crowned champions the Central Coast Mariners aren't your usual club. So Saturday evening probably deserved a special moment of celebration.
That's why when captain Danny Vukovic paused after making his way over to the hastily erected celebratory arch and waited for a horde of family, friends, Mariners staff, and Jake Banks -- Banksy -- the Mariners' number one fan who is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, it felt natural. It felt right. The Mariners are a team that has built a culture based on togetherness and putting in the effort not for themselves, but for the man next to him, and the community at their backs. One of confidence and belief in what they do and their ability to do it. Of living the spirit of the battle hymn that was ringing out across Parramatta Stadium as blue and yellow confetti rained down on those streaming towards the trophy presentation -- Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down."
Their "family photos" after home wins are a public expression of this identity, a reflection of their place in the community of Gosford and the greater Central Coast. So it only made sense to take another one now.
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"It was never going to be anything different," Mariners chief executive Shaun Mielekamp said. "Even post-match, we still don't back down when it's about getting your families on the field. This is who we are and we truly believe in these values and we won't buckle on that for anybody.
"The players wouldn't have done the [trophy lift] without their families there."
For coach Nick Montgomery, 10 years on from missing the Mariners' 2013 title win after receiving the first red card of his career in the semifinal, it meant that the greatest moment of his young coaching career was spent with his wife and children by his side.
When he took over from Alen Stajic ahead of the 2021-22 season, it was easy to dismiss his appointment or worse, label it a step backward. Following playing finals football under Stajcic it appeared that the club, who had finished last four times in five seasons prior to that successful year, was simply going with the cheapest option when they tapped their former captain and now youth coach as his replacement following Stajic's resignation; throwing away any hopes of progress to save a few bucks.
Instead, he has become the best young coach in the competition, one that will almost certainly move on to bigger and better one day. When accounting for his personality and history at the club, it's not unrealistic to say that nobody else in the league could have done what he did with this team.
"It's a family club, it really is," he said. "The Central Coast is a family community. People move there with their children. The last 10 years, there's been some really tough times on the Coast. The team has really struggled.
"To get everyone on the pitch at the end there ... that's just normal for us. We do the family photo every week at home when we win a game so I don't think there's any more fitting picture than getting all the families out there tonight and creating memories that will last forever."
And the memories, undoubtedly, will last forever, for Saturday's contest, long before the unorthodox trophy lift, was incredible. A contest that may never be repeated.
Melbourne City 1, Central Coast Mariners 6. One of the most remarkable games in ALM history. The Mariners, the little old Mariners, are champions. A team that operates off the sniff of an oily rag and just over half a decade ago was so bad that they were almost relegated from a league that doesn't even have relegation, thumped City, a side backed by the billions and billions of the City Football Group and who have won three straight premierships.
This isn't supposed to happen. Not in the modern football age of hypercapitalism, global football groups, and other assorted modern miracles. The little guys don't get to win in the face of all this at the best of times, let alone produce a scoreline that devastatingly humbles the biggest dog in the yard in the most important game of the year.
But that's exactly what happened in Parramatta. What Montgomery calls "the smallest club with the biggest heart" put forth one of the most remarkable performances in Australian football history.
In transition, they were lethal, slicing through a City defence that had set club records for miserliness this season with what at times was a casual ease. When they needed to be, they were devastating in front of goal and if not for some heroics from City keeper Tom Glover, could have gone into the halftime break up 3-1 or 4-1. After City pulled it back to 2-1 just before half-time and things looked a little shaky, the Mariners dug in and defended desperately to see off the threat. And when Jacob Farrell won a penalty that Jason Cummings stepped up to convert, they were ruthless in breaking the backs of City's resistance and piling on the pain.
In what is all but certain to be his last game for the club before he jets out overseas, Cummings, now a Socceroo that has been to a World Cup after his career rescued by Montgomery, scored a hat trick, set a new Mariners record for most goals in a season, and was awarded the Joe Marston Medal for best afield. In his first season back on the Coast, back with the club that helped propel him to what was an ill-fated first crack at Europe, Samuel Silvera had a goal and an assist. Vukovic, 18 years after he was in goal for the Mariners as they lost the first-ever ALM Grand Final, is now a championship-winning captain.
"Everyone knows how much this club means to me," Cummings said post-game. "Dundee let me go and [Montgomery] and the Mariners gave me the opportunity. The last year and a half has been a dream come true. I need to enjoy the moment now."
It's seismic. Not just because of all these narratives, which only scratch the surface of what can be told about this club, but because a result like this, a comprehensive thrashing on the league's biggest stage, represents the ultimate validation of how the Mariners have turned their club around. This was the youngest squad in the league, full of players that had either come up through their academy or moved over from others in the hope of greater opportunities. Their senior players are a collection of cast-offs, misfits, reclamation projects, journeymen, or, in Vukovic's case, players in their twilight. But they still found a way to win.
The 2022-23 ALM trophy will now stand as the ultimate proof that you don't have to be the richest club in the league, have the best facilities, bring in high-profile international talent, or spend a heap on wages to be successful. If you're smart enough, good enough, committed enough, unified enough, and, yes, lucky enough, you can still do some great things.
For Melbourne City, however, the recriminations will begin. The narrative of their season, of their past five years, has changed with one, disastrous 90 minutes. Despite winning three-straight premierships and making four straight Grand Finals, just once have they actually secured an ALM championship in this time. In Australia, until some kind of reform happens, it's the championship that matters.
"It looked like they wanted to win the game more than us," said City coach Rado Vidosic.
"They outplayed us in the first half. They bullied us. They won every 50-50 ball. Even the smallest players were unbelievably committed. We just maybe thought someone else was going to do it for me, and it didn't happen."
And perhaps there is also the elephant in the room that needs to be acknowledged. Twice now this season, in the women's and men's Grand Finals, a team from Melbourne has won the right to "host," only to be forced to travel to Sydney to take on a NSW-based opponent under the terms of the league's deal with Destination NSW to play its deciders in the Harbour City. And both times, they have been defeated comprehensively by a team whose supporters dwarfed their own in the stadium, by a 10-1 aggregate all up.
That, however, is a conversation that probably needs a larger sample size, with next year's Grand Finals added to the data pool. For now, any other kind of controversy won't take away this Mariners' accomplishment or dampen their celebrations.
"You ever seen the film Project X?" Cummings grinned post-game.