Central Coast Mariners’ club legend Matt Simon celebrated his 200th A-League appearance in a fairytale comeback victory over Melbourne City.
The celebratory atmosphere in Gosford quickly turned sour when last year’s A-League grand finalists City scored two first-half goals in quick succession.
But Mariners captain Simon notched an assist then scored a goal of his own to level the scores against 10-man City.
A searing strike from Daniel de Silva sealed a 3-2 win – and sent last year’s last-placed side to the top of the competition ladder.
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The Mariners were in the ascendancy for much of the opening twenty minutes, unsettling City’s usually slick passing game with a high energy and well-organised press.
But the tables were turned when City ramped up their own press inside the home side’s half, robbing impressive young midfielder Gianni Stensness on the sideline. The visitors quickly switched the ball to the opposite sideline, before Craig Noone picked out a well-timed Adrian Luna run to the edge of the six-yard box with a perfectly-directed pass. Luna deftly buried the chance to hand the visitors the lead in the 23rd minute.
Socceroos star Jamie Maclaren continued his unbelievable goalscoring record against the Central Coast side on the back of another rapid counter-attack, as French midfielder Florin Berenguer sliced the defence open with a pinpoint through ball that Maclaren slid beyond Mark Birighitti.
Stensness was again partly at fault, a misplaced pass in his own half being picked off by City before the 21-year-old – who has been one of the best players for the Mariners so far this campaign – tried to make amends with a desperate sliding tackle. His attempt was sidestepped and with the midfielder on the turf, City stormed forward as Berenguer threaded the needle for Maclaren to double the margin.
It was Maclaren’s 11th goal in 12 games against the hosts, having previously scored a hat-trick against the Mariners when the sides last met.
Mariners defender Ruon Tongyik should have headed home in the 35th minute when he rose high to head a bullet header towards goal from within six yards, only to find City gloveman Tom Glover off the well-worked set piece routine.
But the Gosford side were again in the ascendancy on the park, if not the scoreboard, and got a deserved reward in the 41st minute.
Stensness’ luck finally turned when he won a header from a City goal kick, his ball finding Matt Simon who fended off two defenders before starting a slick passing move down the sideline. Simon was fed into the box by Polish star Michal Janota, and showed the awareness and calmness expected of a double-centurion to lay the ball off to 20-year-old winger Jaden Casella to tap home his maiden league goal.
The Mariners came out well in the second half, and Stensness continued his personal redemption story in the 55th minute when he sent a delightful raking pass to Stefan Nigro down the wing. Nigro floated the ball into the box in the direction of Simon, who tumbled to the ground as City centre-back Nathaniel Atkinson clattered into his back. A penalty could be the outcome.
The man wearing the armband stepped up and rocketed it from 12 yards out, marking his 200th match in perfect style. Simon ran to his family with his traditional ‘shakkas’ sign raised above his head and kissing the badge, before waving to his family with a beaming smile firmly fixed on his face.
The Mariners’ breakout young striker Alou Kuol had only entered the field couple of minutes before Simon’s 57th-minute leveller, but Kuol’s intensity and seemingly boundless energy paid off almost immediately when he robbed the ball from a City defender and charged towards goal.
He was brought down by City’s Kerrin Stokes as he romped forward, with the City defender promptly handed his second caution and sent off on the hour mark.
The momentum had well and truly swung in the Mariners’ favour, with ten-man City unable to muster a shot until the final ten minutes.
But the Mariners continued to press, and their togetherness and vigour in defence – which has been a feature of their surprise run to the top of the league this campaign – once again paid off with ten minutes remaining.
Diminutive talent Daniel de Silva poached the ball in the midfield before aiming a pass towards Kuol. The ball rebounded to De Silva, who looked up, paused, then rocketed the ball towards the goal. Tom Glover had little chance of getting a hand to the shot – and was probably grateful he didn’t, for the wellbeing of his fingers.
It was De Silva’s 11th league goal in 99 appearances, with his own milestone match scheduled for Sunday’s clash against Western United.
City pushed hard for a late equaliser despite their numeric disadvantage, but the Mariners held firm to seal an inspired victory – and consigned City to their first-ever league defeat in games where they took a 2-0 lead.
De Silva told Fox Football: “We gave it all we got… It’s a fantastic win, to come from behind. Even better accolade for Matty Simon, his 200 games. To win it for him as well, as a team it’s fantastic.”
Simon was chaired off the park by his teammates, surrounded by a guard of honour.
He told Fox Football “It was a huge night. It didn’t really hit me, the milestone, until I got to the ground … The boys put in a huge effort and I think we deserved the three points in the end.
“I was hoping we could come back, as we’ve showed the resilience throughout the year. We spoke at halftime that we just needed to keep going. If we just kept playing the way we were playing and kept the pressure up I knew we’d get on top.”
Simon was full of praise for young teammate Casella, whose maiden goal came on just his second start in the league. “Obviously Jaden to get his first goal is huge for him, I’m happy for him. He’s been doing tremendously well,” he said.
Then he delivered a touching moment that had plenty of fans – and even his detractors – in tears.
Simon explained his trademark goal celebration, saying: “Obviously getting my goal caps off a good night. The shakkas is a shoutout to my young daughter who was born in Hawaii.”
Darcy, Simon’s daughter, was born premature at 27 weeks and was fortunate to survive. Simon was in tears as he embraced her after the game.
“It’s one of my favourite years playing, playing in front of my family and my kids – they understand what dad’s job is now. The shakkas is a mahalo to my daughter. Hopefully I can keep scoring goals so I can keep waving to her,” he said.