Can money buy you titles? Melbourne City's run of three-successive A-League Men premierships would suggest that it certainly helps. But then again, the fact that the Citizens have lost two of the last three Grand Finals they've played in -- the actual arbiter of which club becomes champion in Australia -- suggests that the nature of standalone fixtures provides some form of equalising effect. Their opponents on June 3, the Central Coast Mariners, will definitely be hoping that's the case.
Why frame the looming Grand Final through this prism at all, though, when there are so many other things to consider? Because the subject of money, material resources, wages, and all the other things that make the footballing world go around, is probably going to come up a lot in the next two weeks. And not just because this is the first men's decider that will be staged under the Australian Professional League's agreement to sell hosting rights to Destination NSW -- with all the boycotts and bad vibes that come with that.
From the moment that the cash-strapped Mariners set up a meeting with the riches of Melbourne City in this year's Grand Final, the role that money plays in success became an inevitable narrative. It had to, because it's a good one, not only as it's reflective of the contest's circumstances but also because it's something that tends to resonate with an audience far beyond the die-in-the-wool A-League fan. The scrappy underdog going toe-to-toe with the well-coiffed elite is one of fiction's (and history's) most popular tropes for a reason: it often deeply resonates with a public that either has a similar experience or, at the very least, reads a bit of themselves into an idealistic view of the underdog.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
It's why the Mariners will be the sentimental favourite of so many neutral observers come the season's final day, as these struggles have come to become a key part of their identity during their incredible turnaround in recent years. From the palm trees that line Central Coast Stadium, the inflatable sauce bottles that loom over the goals and even the battle hymn that rings out at their ground before every home game -- Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" -- everything about this club is increasingly bathed in a defiant belief in its own character and worth, of championing the virtues of standing one's ground and fighting, surviving and thriving against the odds.
Speaking to reporters following his side's over the Reds, Mariners boss Nick Montgomery was quick to lay down his claim to the underdog tag for the coming contest by declaring the coming fixture a battle of "David vs. Goliath" before quickly adding that his side, capable of beating anyone, would have no fear.
And as much as it irks anyone to be painted in such a light, City's dynastic side doesn't get to cry poor in the face of all this. Not when is underwritten by the petrodollars of one of the world's largest footballing groups at the same time Mariners' chairman Richard Peil is admitting the club has likely never made a profit, is without material assets of note, and needs increased support from the community to remain viable.
Of course, the less sensationalist reality at City isn't one of unrestrained opulence; there isn't some kind of endless money tap those in at the club can turn whenever a new whim takes their fancy. And no matter how well they are able to exploit and stretch its arcane machinations and loopholes, it still operates within the confines of a salary cap.
But when it comes to the ability to direct resources where it matters the most, at global scouting and information networks, a nation-leading academy, the signing of well-credentialed internationals and returning Socceroos, or the recruitment and retention of the people behind the scenes that help make it all tick, there is no side more blessed in the A-Leagues than City. The knowledge that one's club is an ongoing concern comes with the luxury of time and security, of the ability to plan for the future and not just spend, but invest. And when it comes to the A-Leagues, City invests better than anyone.
It's why they will enter the Grand Final expected to take out the title -- to live up to the standards they themselves have set. The classic line likely to be repeated often among the neutrals over the coming days will likely be along the lines of: "The heart says Mariners, the head says City."
Since taking over from Patrick Kisnorbo following the World Cup break, City coach Rado Vidosic has sought to infuse a new layer of creative freedom and improvisation into his side, trusting a group of really good footballers to do really good football things when allowed to.
There have been growing pains and adjustments; a striker like Jamie Maclaren, for instance, whose game is built so much on timing and knowing where he needs to be at the exact right moment, has had to relearn the habits of his teammates when they have the freedom to create. There has also been a habit of falling asleep in games, as happened in the second half of the first leg of their semifinal tie against Sydney FC, as well as occasionally getting bogged down in possession for possession's sake.
But Vidosic's changes on the team arguably could be said to represent the necessary next step in the evolution of this City side to keep them at the top: a level of fluidity, adaptability and improvisation, especially against the league's better sides, placed on top of the foundations laid by Erick Mombaerts and the steel and mentality of Kisnorbo. Remarkably, a win over the Mariners in round nine, Vidosic's second game in charge, actually represented the first time they won a game within 90 minutes against a side that would end the season inside the top four since the 2020-21 Grand Final.
Against Sydney on Friday evening, returning to AAMI Park after an indifferent first leg ended in a 1-1 draw, City were ruthless in recording a 4-0 victory, finally getting a much-deserved opener through Curtis Good on the cusp of half-time before piling on the pain thanks to an own goal from Jack Rodwell and strikes from Marco Tilio and Richard van der Venne.
But even if City is the best team in the A-Leagues, or at least the one with the highest ceiling, the Mariners are increasingly looking like they're not being left behind.
There was a touch of nervousness about some aspects of their performance on Saturday, tame efforts on goal and a brief flirtation of allowing the game to descend into a midfield-bypassing tennis match as both sides started with frenetic pace. But nervous energy was probably to be expected given the massive stakes associated with the game and the record crowd that was on hand, and if anything the young Mariners' ability not to become overawed with the occasion and lose their heads is a testament to Montgomery and his coaching staff.
And eventually, those nerves subsided and were replaced by yet more evidence that this Mariners team, given their handicaps, have built something with celebrating. In front of a stadium filled to the brim by a galvanised community, young players given trust and scope by their coach combined with shrewdly recruited veterans to book a first Grand Final appearance in a decade. There was bravery in combination play, spurts of creativity, consistent effort for one another, and a defence anchored by a 29-year-old Vanuatu international in his first fully professional season and a former Western Sydney Wanderers prospect standing up to be counted.
Are the Mariners best capable of beating City? Absolutely. Capable of beating a City side at its absolute best? That's more nebulous. But therein lies the appeal of these two in a Grand Final. Other teams may have sought to fight City, to turn the game into a contest of attrition. The Mariners are going to give them a game.