SEN's The Global Game: Stajcic reveals 'the most important factor' in Mariners turnaround
After overseeing Central Coast Mariners' third-successive finish on the bottom of the A-League table, Alen Stajcic set out in search of players capable of driving cultural change to thrust into his leadership group for the 2020/21 campaign.
Speaking to Simon Hill and Alex Brosque on the latest instalment of SEN's 'The Global Game', the Mariners boss revealed he found what he was looking for in a pair of off-season arrivals and three well-established Mariners who together rose to the challenge of leading an inexperienced Central Coast squad to the Finals Series for the first time in seven years.
Mariners captain Oli Bozanic and Costa Rican international Marco Ureña joined Stajcic in Gosford for the 2020/21 season, and quickly set about sharing their experience and football knowledge with a youthful, eager and hungry Mariners squad.
Joining the new recruits in leading by example were Matt Simon, Mark Birighitti and Jack Clisby - three Mariners who saw the level the club was aiming for and lifted their own standards to help match the new-found ambition.
And now, as the Mariners prepare to put an end to their six-season Finals Series absence football with an Elimination Final clash with Macarthur FC on Saturday, June 12, Stajcic says the club's off-season decision to invest in players with great character and the ability to lead has proved to be the imperative factor in turning the cellar dwellers into title contenders in 2020/21.
"You never know what you’re going to get before a season, Simon," Stajcic told Hill and Brosque.
"Our pre-season friendlies were really competitive, we showed enough in those matches for me to have some confidence going into the year.
"I knew who much we’d improved from last year, but ultimately when it comes down to the competition we had a good start, we built a good foundation of belief and confidence and we carried that pretty much throughout the rest of the year.
The culture within a group is to me the most important factor.
Bringing in great characters and great leaders is probably the most important factor within that.
"Someone like Oli (Bozanic) who is such a top pro, he’s always positive, always there to lend a hand to the young kids.
"He knew what he was signing up for as well having done the post-season COVID training with us last year, he was sort of still thinking about going back to Europe at that time, and Marco (Ureña) was in the same boat.
"We presented him with what our club was, where we’ve been and obviously where we wanted to get to. They both were really excited by the challenge of helping all our young boys along.
"When you talk about the other couple you mentioned, especially (Matt Simon), they’ve just been tremendous leaders in the group. (Clisby) has grown into that role... and (Birighitti) as well. They’ve really nurtured all the young players in our group to get us to the point where we’re at today."
"I think the biggest reflection I had was during that COVID break," Stajcic added.
"We were on a stretch of ten or so losses in a row at that point, and COVID came to a point where we had two or three months away from each other, we didn’t see each other.
"That was really my moment of reflection on myself, as a coach, as a leader and as someone who was trying to manage everything within the club... I really reflected on what we had, what we needed to do, what I needed to change, and we really went back to basics and simplified everything.
I really think that we needed a strong, core leadership group, a platform where these players had an environment (to) learn and grow, and learn off these older players as quick as they could.
Having a squad (where) probably around 75% of the team were youngsters, or year one, year two sort of players within the A-League, we really needed that leadership group to be strong.
"I don’t think it’s been perfect, and certainly there’s a lot more we can improve moving forward but I think we laid a good platform not only for this year but years to come."
Stajcic's Mariners are now preparing to face Macarthur at Central Coast Stadium in a winner-takes-all Elmination Final bout.
And for all the work the Mariners boss put into cultivating leadership in his side Stajcic concedes the Bulls, led by head coach Ante Milicic and captain Mark Milligan, have the upper hand when it comes to experience and know-how leading into the high stakes affair.
"We know they’re a great team," he said.
"They’ve got more experience than us in their team, they’ve got five or six ex-Socceroos, (Markel) Susaeta, Beñat (Etxebarria) and (Matt) Derbyshire, just a tremendous line-up.
"But we know if we play our best that we’re certainly going to be in the contest and be up to winning the game as well.
"The beauty of this year’s finals is that the six teams are so evenly matched, the fact that anyone can beat anyone on the day and whoever produces the goods on the day is going to come out victors."
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