Mariners' Cinderella run meets Melbourne City's dominance in A-League Grand Final

Josh Nisbet's first-ever A-League Men start arguably represents one of the most significant in Central Coast Mariners history, with its butterfly effect setting the table for a run that will culminate in this weekend's Grand Final. Which is funny, because, at the time, it was probably considered one of the club's worst games.

With a score of players unavailable on that fateful Saturday evening, round 21 of the 2018-19 season, then-Mariners boss Mike Mulvey was forced to turn to Nisbet out of necessity and what followed in front of a sparse 3,703 fans at Bluetongue Stadium was an almost perfect example of lambs led to the slaughter. Marko Rudan's Wellington Phoenix were rampant and ruthless, running out 8-2 victors.

An ignominious cherry put on a season that had, to that point, produced just a single win, Mulvey was sacked the following day. One could have easily said that it was the lowest moment in the club's history if it didn't have so many to choose from during their downtrodden years.

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"It was nowhere near what it was today," Nisbet, reflecting on his first years with the Mariners senior side, told ESPN. "It sort of had a vibe of winning wasn't a necessity.

"Rather than trying to be super successful and do really well it was just more about keeping your head afloat."

Fast forward to 2023, though, and Nisbet is the only player that took the field for the Mariners that day still at the club. Only now, he's preparing for one of the biggest games of his life. Somehow, across the four years since that humiliation, the Mariners have pulled themselves off the canvas and despite an ongoing chronic lack of resources and small market location, become one of the best sides in the ALM. Indeed, since the start of the 2020-21 campaign, only their foes on Saturday, Melbourne City, has won more league games than the Mariners.

Originally not in the plans of Alen Stajcic, who took over the head coach role following Mulvey's exit and led the first two years of the rebuild, Nisbet has preserved during this period to become one of the side's most indispensable players.

"I can't produce enough superlatives for Nizzy," Stajcic told CODE Sports earlier this year. "He went from being an outsider in the squad ... to almost the first name on the team sheet within six months."

It's a tale of defiance on an individual level, but one that is almost perfectly allegorical for the internal spirit that has galvanised the team and its surrounding community. Be it the palm trees that overlook the field, the sauce bottle mascots that roam the ground, the Ospreys that nest at the stadium, or the "family photos" they take after every home win, the Mariners do things just a little differently than the other sides around the league.

And, as perfectly represented by their pre-game battle hymn -- Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down -- they've turned that into a sense of pride in what they've been able to accomplish while doing so, and in the community they represent. Find it irksome? It doesn't matter, it's not for you; it's a uniting creation myth for those wearing blue and yellow and the community at their back.

"The first real sense of change may have been the start of Staj's second full season [where the Mariners won seven of their opening 10 games]," Nisbet said. "There was a real sense of "we can do this." And ever since that day, Monty [current Mariners boss Nick Montgomery] has taken over and 100% has gone on with that and all the boys have a sense of belief now."

By deliberate or subconscious design, it's a story that feels like something ripped from a script, and the Mariners have unabashedly pilfered the "Believe" motif from Ted Lasso during their run to the Grand Final. But Saturday's decider isn't a work of fiction, where the underdog inevitably triumphs and rides into the sunset. It's reality. And reality is often disappointing. Standing across from the Mariners at Parramatta Stadium will be three-time defending premiers Melbourne City, a side that continues to re-write what it means to be a successful A-Leagues club across men's, women's, and youth programs.

Even after losing the benefits of home-field advantage due to the Destination NSW Grand Final deal, they are nowhere near anything that could be considered the underdog, nor can they have their hearts swelled with some great downtrodden sense of defiance. They don't need to worry about those kinds of narratives, as they've been so damn good in recent years they needn't bother with them.

Of course, they have the facilities, global scouting network and contacts, and material resources that mean they're operating with a head start over other clubs, as well as a much greater margin for error. To pretend otherwise is to be wilfully obtuse. But they're still getting the important decisions right. In contrast, how many elite training pitches did Western Sydney Wanderers build during their finals absence? How many millions did Melbourne Victory spend on recruitment (and buyouts) and wages just to secure a wooden spoon and finish second bottom twice across the past four years?

"The narrative of 'you've got lots of money and you're run by the City Football Group' sometimes covers people's vision of what we've actually done," City skipper Scott Jamieson said. "Yes, having great resources, having the resources to go and get marquees is great. Mind you, every other club can do that too.

"But the salary cap is the same and I want to reiterate that: everyone has the same salary cap. Money doesn't buy success. It doesn't. It's clear because prior to success we had we had money but we just didn't get success.

"What gives you success and what gives you a chance to win is the people inside the club and the day-to-day work ethic that people carry onto a pitch or into a gym."

Ultimately, to observe this City team in action is to perhaps almost be forced into an infinite loop of qualifiers, with the two almost Schrodinger-esque in their ability to both be true and utterly contradictory at the same time.

In a league with a salary cap and no transfer fees (even if the former has got enough exemptions and special clauses to keep an army of lawyers employed for decades), you can't just buy a title outright. The constrictive nature of these regulations means even if you're playing a strong hand you have to make the right decisions, employ the right people, and get the job done on the field. And the roads aren't paved in gold at Casey Fields, they have a budget they have to stick to as well -- the men's side has three polo tops bearing the most up-to-date sponsors that the whole squad has to share for media appearances. Lubricated as the joints might be, City is still a brilliant winning machine filled with brilliant people.

But City is also operating as a part of the world's largest football group, one that has drawn the ire of Amnesty International. As long as that link exists, it possesses a safety net no other side can match, and the only thing stopping them from blowing the rest of the league away with their off-field spending is the group's own restraint.

To attempt to downplay the challenge in front of them only adds further ammunition to the Mariners' narrative that they are the underdogs with the rest of the world against them. Almost as soon as the final whistle blew on their semifinal win over Adelaide United, Montgomery was already staking a claim on the tag for the final -- declaring it a "David vs. Goliath" contest.

"Narrative-wise, it's probably perfect in how it's written," said Nisbet. "The club with probably the biggest funding in the whole world in the City Group and the Mariners, who don't spend much above the budget. It's a great story, and we're happy to be part of that story, and we're going to do our best to keep the story going."