The Leeds connection that helped Central Coast create A-League history

GOSFORD, Australia -- All things being equal, Mark Jackson will end the most successful debut season in A-League coaching history with a very apt bookend.

Just weeks out from the start of the 2023-24 season, the 46-year-old was jumping on a plane and leaving his home in England for the unknown, heading to Gosford as the new coach of defending champions the Central Coast Mariners and, alongside his assistant Danny Schofield, tasked with somehow finding a way to continue the legacy of the departing Nick Montgomery. And it's fair to say that there was a bit of pessimism.

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Preferred over a local candidate, Jackson brought significant pedigree from his time at Leeds United, working under both Marcelo Bielsa and Jesse Marsch, but was arriving in Gosford after being sacked by MK Dons four months prior, relegated from League One with a winning percentage of 24%. Though turning down multiple job offers in England to join Jackson, Schofield had been axed by Doncaster Rovers after an 18th-place finish in League Two, after lasting all of eight games as the boss of Huddersfield Town before that. Further, the title-winning Mariners the pair were nominally inheriting had been stripped for parts across the 18 months prior, the likes of Jason Cummings, Samuel Silvera, Nectarios Triantis and more all departing.

So, when the season started with a four-game losing run, things were looking pretty grim. But what a difference eight months makes.

Not only has Jackson managed to fill the remit of fashioning a title defence but he's managed to somehow surpass it; not only an A-League Men title being held aloft on the surface of Central Coast Stadium after the Mariners' 3-1, extra-time win over Melbourne Victory in Saturday's Grand Final but also the Premiers' Plate and the AFC Cup -- the spoils from a historic campaign that has produced what no other side in league history has ever been able to.

But now, with the party still going, Jackson must get back on a plane, pretty much as abruptly as when he arrived. He'll be back next season -- he's looking forward to it -- but there's some much-needed business to attend to.

"I've got a lot of planning to do," he laughed on Saturday, music blaring from his side's changeroom threatening to drown him out at times. "I'm on a plane to England on Wednesday. I've got to graduate for the pro license, so I'm back on a plane. I've got a five-day last module for that, where I've got to pull together two presentations and present them. So, at some point, I'm gonna have to do them."

What Jackson and Schofield have accomplished this season truly is remarkable. There is perhaps no task more thankless in football than trying to fill the void left by a celebrated coach and a club legend but that was the task assigned in Gosford.

The material disadvantages that the Mariners are forced to contend with are well known -- their ability to overcome them is largely why they're so celebrated -- but Jackson was also approaching this challenge with no first-hand experience with the Australian top flight, nor the slog that a season in the dog days of summer can be: on the same day that his family was able to come and see him coach his new side during Unite Round, it was 30 degrees Celsius, at the same time of year when the average highs in Leeds top out at 7.

"It was tough, not for me jumping on a plane but me jumping on a plane and leaving my family was difficult for them," said Jackson. "Difficult for me in the first couple of months as well.

"There was me and Danny living together, and we just immersed ourselves in the game and the club. We knew we had to do that so actually worked quite well. And [Jackson's family] came out in January and I thank them every day for what they've done and what they sacrificed there [Schofield's family are set to join him in July]. It's a journey for them. It's an adventure for them as well. We've left family behind back in England, but everybody has been so supportive."

Jackson was faced with establishing a presence and building upon Montgomery's foundation with his philosophy in a dressing room that was in a state of flux. Then there were the challenges of adjusting to the demands of travel to places such as Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, and Oman during the side's AFC Cup run.

"Mate, he's just a caring person, first and foremost," said veteran captain Danny Vukovic, three beers in hand during the celebrations, one for each trophy. "Forget about the coach. He cares about everyone and that's a start. But he teaches the boys.

"We know why are we doing things out there. Rather than a coach telling us this is what you're doing, he teaches us why we're doing it and why will work for us. Along with Danny Schofield, they've been fantastic. They give the boys the confidence to go out there and play. If you make a mistake, so be it. We'll fix it while we're out there. And now you see the end result."

Announcing his retirement at the Mariners' post-game celebration on Sunday, Vukovic's journey to get to this point is a momentous one; the last active player to have played in the defunct National Soccer League is now a back-to-back, title-winning captain. And his is just one of many unique paths that make the Mariners' destination such a special one; Josh Nisbet going from dismissed due to his size to two-time champion, Johnny Warren Medalist, with a Socceroos cap; Brian Kaltak transforming from an unknown from Vanuatu that repeatedly trialled with the Mariners to one of the best defenders in league history; Matt Simon transitioning from club great to sporting director, and still serving as the club's beating heart.

"It's just amazing what we've been able to achieve this year," Simon told ESPN. "I don't think there's one negative word that could ever be written about this season and I think it puts this team and this staff up there somewhere, right up there as one of the greatest teams the A-League has ever seen."

Of all the paths to get here, though, it's almost bordering on incredible that one of its most important roads began in Yorkshire, just about seven years ago, at Leeds United's training base at Thorp Arch, in Wetherby.

Back then, Jackson was working as under-18s boss at Leeds, while Schofield was working as a youth development coach with the teams 15s and 16s and then the under-23 side. The newly crowned Joe Marston Medalist as best afield in the 2024 Grand Final, Ryan Edmondson arrived from York City that season on a scholarship contract, impressing enough in the youth teams to earn a senior debut on the final day of the 2017-18 Championship season.

Fast forward to January 2024 and Edmondson was all-in on leaving Carlisle United and heading Down Under to stage a reunion, with Blues manager Paul Simpson saying: "After speaking to him, this opportunity has come for him to go over to Australia, and he wants to do it. The fact that he's moved out of his apartment tells me his head is already there."

Needless to say, it's worked out well for the striker. An A-League Men winner's medal faintly clinking off the Joe Marston Medal as he fronted media following the Grand Final, the 23-year-old freely admitted he hadn't known where Gosford was when he decided to move -- "Not a clue!" he beamed -- but that it had since become a blessing.

"Coming over here, it's an opportunity that I was that I was blessed with," he said. "It's been special. I've come into a group where no one knows who I am. I'm an Englishman who's coming to a group full of Aussies with the odd South American in there. And it's like walking into a brotherhood. We spend so much time on and off the pitch with each other. It's crazy. What we've got in that in that changing room is so special."

A special changeroom indeed. One that has just accomplished one of the most special feats in Australian football history. Those from Yorkshire, Fortaleza, Erakor, Woy Woy, Penrith, and more, converging on a special club in Gosford. Coming together to make history at a club that increasingly specialises in it.