Mariners cannot afford Okon to fail

Once one of the A-League powerhouses, the importance of returning the Mariners to respectability has never been as essential as it right now.

Netherlands U21 v Australia U21

Mariners' new coach Paul Okon Source: Getty Images Europe

Sometimes a cliché really does say it best: out of the frying pan and into the fire. That’s the lot of Paul Okon after leaving the national under-20 job to manage Central Coast Mariners.

It may well be the most critical appointment in club history. If this goes wrong and the Mariners don’t improve, there’s no guarantee of a sixth permanent manager.

That may seem dramatic - and an inordinate weight for Okon to bear - but the FFA is hungry to add clubs in the major cities. Yet the prospect of future success - and the gravitas that brings - can bulletproof their survival.

Down to business then. Okon’s immediate task is to restore dignity to a club that has been totally stripped of it.

It is not about implementing a grandiose playing philosophy - that can come later. As of right now, barely a month from the season proper, it is about getting the core fundamentals right.

There’s no time to overhaul the squad. But there is time for a change in mentality; a change in how the players approach season ahead. The highest standards should exist from day one.

The first point of business has already been made. And the decision to cut John Hutchinson may be indicative of Okon’s approach.

Only Archie Thompson rivals 'Hutch' for everlasting symbolism with an A-League team. He is the Mariners, but when Okon was handed the reins, the new boss cleared the decks. It can only be espoused that Hutchinson’s influence around the club was seen to be too great.

Unthinkable as it is to see the ex-Maltese international gone, he owes it to himself to 'upskill' - embark on a study tour in Europe, work with juniors, take on a state league club, find a mentor. He’s still got a big future in football. Maybe even at the Mariners. One day, anyway.

Okon needs to think carefully about the team around him. He’d love to have called in his great mate Aurelio Vidmar, but he’s just joined Bangkok Glass. There’s not loads of obvious talent floating around. Robbie Stanton, having done superb things with Sydney FC's NPL team, is an exciting prospect.

But if I was Okon, I’d look to Italy - where he spent five years - and find an assistant who could help tidy up the club’s defence and instill some tactical nous. Even on a limited budget, it would be an investment, not a cost.

Once a club with an unrivalled culture, it’s frightening to see how quickly that could all unravel. It should never have been allowed to happen - we’re talking about a club that made four grand finals in eight years.

Fingers will be pointed everywhere. At the chairman, Mike Charlesworth, and his right-hand man, Peter Storrie. At the ex-coaches, Tony Walmsley and Phil Moss. At the players.

But it doesn’t really matter who is to blame - what does matter is that it’s fixed. That’s the responsibility of Okon and Charlesworth. They’ll both be aware of that.

Curiously, in all my time covering football, I’ve got significantly more feedback about the Mariners than any other club.

The local community are intensely proud of the club and take any criticism to heart. I love that they care so much - it shows the Mariners are an institution that should be cared for and protected.

But even the fans’ patience has been tested throughout this process. Just have a look around online. They’ve been hurt. Once you burn the local community, winning back their trust is difficult.

That’s the challenge that confronts the club right now. It's a huge one, but so be it. We've reached high noon on Brisbane Water.

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4 min read
Published 30 August 2016 at 5:57pm
By Sebastian Hassett