The Globe Trotting Mariners road to AFC Cup Triumph

An eight month campaign that saw the Central Coast Mariners clock over 100,000 kms in travel culminated in success as they lifted the AFC Cup

The Mariners wrote their name into the history books as they became the first Australian side to claim the AFC Cup.

Their long road to success was the result of a wild campaign which saw them travel throughout the continent to the likes of the Philippines, India, Oman as well as the unlikely destination of Kyrgyzstan.

Mark Jackson's side are on course to complete an unprecedented feat in Australian football as they now fight for the Isuzu UTE A-League Championship as they aim to become the first club to secure the treble.

Isuzu UTE A-League: Important Links

They wrapped up the 2023/24 Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership last Wednesday and are now on the hunt to add that third and final piece of silverware to their overflowing trophy cabinet.

The Mariners secured the 2023/24 Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership last Wednesday (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

The achievements of the community club from Gosford is nothing short of spectacular considering their predicament only a couple of years ago.

For three consecutive seasons from 2018 to 2020, the Mariners finished dead last and were on the brink of setting up shop with a raft of issues off the park seriously threatening the existence of one of the A-League's founding member clubs.

Under the ownership of Mike Charlesworth, Central Coast were surviving on a shoestring budget which saw the club barely scrape by year on year. Their on field performances leaving not only their fans disenchanted but supporters from other clubs also shocked at the state of one of the A-League's most respected sides.

Not until 2022 did the supporters have something to celebrate, Charlesworth had finally left the club and English-born Richard Peil had stepped in to purchase the club.

It has been a rapid rise under Peil's ownership, the Mariners academy has started churning out a number of players which have seamlessly made the transition into first team football.

Meanwhile, a very astute transfer policy has paid dividends with the club assembling a talented squad from relatively untested talents like Brian Kaltak.

Brian Kaltak has enjoyed a trophy laden start to his professional football career (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

The Vanuatu international had been floating around the NPL system before securing a trial with the Mariners.

The rest has been history with the towering defender going on to become one of the most consistent performers across the league over his two seasons as a professional footballer.

The 2022/23 Isuzu UTE A-League campaign under Nick Montgomery saw the former Mariner lead his side to a second placed finish in the regular season before an unforgettable display in the Grand Final saw them demolish Premiers Melbourne City 6-1.

A raft of departures following on from that campaign had serious potential to derail the club. Montgomery departed for Scottish club Hibernian while Jason Cummings, Sam Silvera and Béni N'Kololo also headed overseas.

Key departures following on from last season's Championship winning season threatened to derail the club's progress (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Fans fears appeared to becoming a reality with a slow start to the 2023/24 campaign under the new leadership of the relatively unknown Jackson seeing them suffer four straight defeats.

Their championship-winning season looked like it was a flash in the pan with no side able to resurrect their campaign after such a poor start.

However, against all odds, Jackson's coaching philosophy soon transferred onto the pitch and the club finally had lift off.

They would go on to lose only two more matches in the A-League and remained undefeated for the remainder of their AFC Cup campaign.

The grueling AFC Cup Schedule

For the first time ever, Australia had not one but two representatives in Asia's second tier continental club competition. Macarthur entering the competition thanks to their Australia Cup 2022 triumph while the Mariners' A-League title secured their spot.

Australian clubs have historically performed poorly in Asia aside from the Western Sydney Wanderers Asian Champions League triumph in 2014 which was a major outlier.

The significant travel had often been blamed for the lackluster displays year on year, but the Mariners clearly did not get that memo this season.

They began their AFC Cup assault back in September away to Terengganu in Malaysia. Jackson still hadn't arrived and the club were still in a period of transition as they fell to a 1-0 defeat.

Mikael Doka has been unstoppable in the AFC Cup (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

Since that defeat it was a meteoric rise as they went on to finish top of their group, travelling to Indonesia, Philippines as well as the aforementioned Malaysia.

They were blessed with minimum travel to begin the knockout stages as they overcame Cambodian outfit Phnom Penh Crown in Gosford before a historic clash in Campbelltown saw them knock off the Bulls in extra time thanks to Ronald Barcellos' 120th minute winner.

Catch up with all the matches from the Mariners' AFC Cup campaign

Central Coast were now champions of the ASEAN region which meant they would have to come up against the champions from the South: Indian Super League outfit, Odisha FC.

Over the two legged affair, Jackson's side prevailed. Putting four unanswered goals past their opponents in Gosford before making the long trip to Odisha where they registered a goalless stalemate.

The Mariners will clock over 40 matches throughout the 2023/24 season

They were then rewarded with what turned out be a round trip for the memory books as they came up against the Champions of the Central Region: FC Abdysh-Ata of Kyrgyzstan.

The AFC Cup was sure to bring about some interesting match ups and this one just may have topped the lot as the men from Gosford headed to the Kyrgyzstan capital, Bishkek, for the first leg.

Over a day of travel with several stopovers saw them finally reach their destination.

They secured a 1-1 draw with Kaltak's opener cancelled out by the home side's late equaliser.

Any chance of a swift departure from the picturesque Kyrgyzstan were quickly dashed with heavy rains in Dubai forcing the club to remain in the country for longer than expected.

So, Jackson and his boys got to do something that very few professional footballers get the opportunity to do, and that was explore their surroundings.

Watch the AFC Cup Final Replay on 10 Play

After a few days of sightseeing, the Mariners finally touched down in Sydney after a lengthy layoff in South Korea.

The second leg just a few days later in Gosford saw the Mariners come out on top 3-0 thanks to a late onslaught that saw Miguel Di Pizio secure his first brace for the club.

With 13 games across the continent now been and gone, they had one last challenge as they prepared to meet Lebanese side Al Ahed.

The 2019 champions had the hosting rights for the Final which meant one more long haul trip for the now seasoned travellers from Gosford.

Central Coast Mariners' players celebrate with the trophy after winning the AFC Cup final (Photo by HAITHAM AL-SHUKAIRI/AFP via Getty Images)

Monday morning's clash at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Oman saw them register over 100,000 kilometres in travel throughout their Asian campaign.

A nervy affair in Muscat was decided by Alou Kuol's winner with just over five minutes remaining.

At the full time whistle, it was understandably a massive sense of achievement for the club as they lifted their second trophy within the space of the week.

However, their season does not end there. Once again, they will have to regroup and refocus as they turn their attention to the historic treble when they return to action against Sydney FC in the Isuzu UTE A-League Semi Finals this Friday night.