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Last season's champions couldn't keep hold of their crown, but they deserve immense credit for staying in the race after losing so many important players

In the dugout

Phil Moss has done a remarkable job since inheriting the hot-seat from Graham Arnold in November. The Mariners have spent the last 12 months steadily losing important members of their 2012-13 title-winning squad, and the departure of the coach two months into the new campaign, followed by more key players even deeper into the season, looked to have made it all but impossible for Central Coast to retain their crown.

Indeed, during a grim-five match losing run in February, it appeared as if the reigning champions would miss out on the top six altogether. From that low point Moss managed to get his new-look side, hastily assembled in the January transfer window, to gel. Against expectations, they finished strongly to claim third on the table and got within touching distance of a place in the AFC Champions League round of 16, before finally running out of steam to lose to the Wanderers in the semi-finals.

But Moss has certainly stepped out from Arnold's shadow, and big things will once again be expected of the overachievers from Gosford next season.

Captain

With so many changes to the squad, skipper John Hutchinson has been an important link to the Mariners' past. He was a strong, consistent performer in midfield, making 27 appearances in the A-League and six in the AFC Champions League. Unfortunately, he is set to spend at least some of the off-season dwelling on a late own-goal at home to FC Seoul on matchday five of the ACL, an error which ultimately cost the Mariners a good chance of getting out of the group, as they did in 2013.

Marquee players?

The ever frugal Central Coast didn't have a domestic or international marquee in 2013-14. Argentine Marcos Flores had been paid outside the salary cap at Melbourne Victory, who contributed to his wages after the Argentine joined the Mariners within their normal wage structure in July. He made a promising start to life in Gosford, but suffered a torn ACL in January and was released at the end of the campaign. Kim Seung-Yong should be better next term after a full pre-season, while British veteran Nick Montgomery impressed again with his consistency in midfield.

Bernie Ibini shone with six goals in 16 games on loan at his old club but will now rejoin Shanghai SIPG. Michael McGlinchey could perhaps seek to terminate his loan deal with Vegalta Sendai after Arnold was sacked early in the J-League season. McGlinchey's fellow New Zealander Storm Roux had a breakout season at fullback, while Zach Anderson stepped up at centre-back in place of Trent Sainsbury.

Arnold's gamble in bringing in Liam Reddy to succeed the prodigious Mat Ryan was justified, the goalkeeper putting his chequered past behind to star between the sticks.

Moss though will hope for more from forward Mitch Duke in 2014-15 after he struggled for consistency.

At ease in the hotseat | Moss has impressed since taking the top job

Best performance

There are a few well-matched contenders for the high point of the Mariners' season. Aside from 3-0 and 3-1 F3 derby wins over the Newcastle United, there was also a 2-1 victory over the Wanderers in Round 25, and a surprise 2-0 triumph away to the Roar in the final round of the season, although Brisbane admittedly had nothing to play for in that one.

But we're going for the surprise 2-1 win at home to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on matchday two of the ACL. Having lost six of their previous seven games, no-one gave Moss and his players any hope of getting a result against the J-League champions. It was that come-from-behind success, sealed with a brace from retiring hero Mile Sterjovski, which gave the Mariners the belief to salvage their fading season.

Lowest ebb

As much as 2013-14 has been about Central Coast defying the odds, there's also been more than a few painful moments. The 4-1 loss at home to Wellington Phoenix in February was arguably the low point of the domestic campaign. But the two 1-0 defeats at home to Seoul and away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima were perhaps the most demoralising. Both were to some extent self-inflicted, caused by Hutchinson's unfortunate own-goal and Brent Griffiths' sending-off in Japan, where the J-League title-holders punished their visitors by scoring the winner from the subsequent free-kick.

Off the field

A government grant in August 2013 helped work to continue on the Mariners' training base and proposed centre of excellence. Tuggerah will host the Socceroos' pre-World Cup training camp ahead of their farewell friendly against South Africa in May.

Central Coast staged a match at North Sydney Oval in December, and are reportedly exploring the possibility of playing at Manly's Brookvale Oval next season, as they to access untapped markets in Sydney's north and fringes.

Where to next?

An off-season of consolidation and typically shrewd recruitment will be needed to bolster the Mariners' squad and ensure they stay competitive. They will need pace and goals to compensate for the loss of Ibini back to China. More speed in defence may also be required, with the sluggish Eddy Bosnar and Marcel Seip exposed at times in the second half of 2013-14. The experience of Sterjovski will also be hard to replace.

Verdict

The Mariners deserve immense credit for vaulting the numerous hurdles strewn in their path, but it's surely only going to get harder for them next season.

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