It’s unlikely many Leeds United fans know it, but Central Coast Mariners in Australia are on fire right now – powered by FIVE men with Whites connections.
Mark Jackson’s appointment as Mariners head coach last September may have raised a few eyebrows at the time, but his team are proving largely unstoppable right now.
The ex-Leeds United and Scunthorpe United defender had carved out an impressive coaching reputation in the vaunted Elland Road Academy, nurturing precocious talents such as Archie Gray, Charlie Cresswell and Crysencio Summerville.
Jackson was then promoted to Leeds’ first-team coaching staff under Jesse Marsch before leaving to become manager of MK Dons, then in English football’s third tier, in December 2022.
It was Jackson’s first senior management post and ended in the sack after the Dons were relegated to League Two last season.
Like so many managers who lose their jobs, the 46-year-old faced a challenge to reinvent himself.
Four months later, after a period of introspection, the Yorkshireman headed down under to become the new head coach of the A-League champions.
Last season, the Mariners defied the odds in spectacular fashion to win the Grand Final under former Sheffield United midfielder Nick Montgomery, hammering Melbourne City 6-1 in the Grand Final despite having the youngest squad and lowest budget in the competition.
It was a remarkable achievement and led to Scottish Premier League side Hibernian snapping up Montgomery, opening the door for Jackson to take the reins.
After a shaky start to the season, losing their first four A-League games, the Gosford-based side have emerged as the competition’s form team.
They are currently unbeaten in 12 games in all competitions, a run which has lifted them to third in the table.
Jackson, who was last week named Coach of the Month for December, told Planet Football: “How big a decision was it to come here?
“From a footballing point of view, not a massive one, but from a logistical, family point of view, it was huge.
“It was something we had to discuss quickly, and the success and exposure the Mariners had last season, winning the Grand Final under Monty, meant it was a coveted job with many applicants.
“As a family we spoke and I said, ‘if I’m successful in the interview then this needs to happen pretty quickly’.
“My two daughters were really keen to move here so it was fairly easy from a family point of view.
“But when that time came when I had to jump on a plane – on my son’s birthday on September 24 – by myself, knowing my family weren’t coming out until January, that’s when it became real.
“I don’t regret it at all, though, and it didn’t take me long to realise that this was the right move for us as a family and for me as a manager.
“My whole family finally joined me out here three weeks ago, having not seen them since September, and that’s brilliant because it was challenging at the start, being apart from them.
“Our stadium is right next to the sea and has palm trees in front of it – it’s incredibly picturesque and I want the team to be close to the fans and the community here.
“There’s a fantastic culture here about how we interact with the fans, although travelling to away games is obviously challenging for our supporters given the distances involved.
“I work with the chairman Richard Peil, Matt Simon the director of football, and Anton Tagliaferro, who’s a massive financial backer of the youth system, was on the interview panel as well.
“I’m driving their vision of what they want me to achieve in what is a beautiful part of the world on the Central Coast.
“To do that, I have to lead on a lot of things, and growing the pathway for young players was a big part of me coming to the Mariners.
“We bring young players into the club and give them an opportunity because it’s about aligning the team into our way of playing, right from the youth team to the women’s team and obviously my team.
“I’m doing that as part of my Pro-Licence – developing a culture within a club as new manager – so it’s about everyone moving in the right direction and overseeing that progress.
“It’s also about understanding that the club has a turnover of players and I’m still comfortable with that.
“At the end of last season, we lost five first-team players – James McGarry to Aberdeen, Nector Triantis to Sunderland, Samuel Silvera to Middlesbrough, Jason Cummings to India and Béni Nkololo went to Saudi Arabia.
“I think three of those players scored 36 goals and contributed 15 assists between them, so that’s what we had to replace and I knew it was a big task.
“In December, we sold Marco Tulio, one of our star players, to a club in Japan.
“But I understand that’s what we need to do to sustain the club and help us grow going forward.
“But I was always confident in my and the team’s ability, particularly all the wider staff and how we’re working together.”
Leeds, Leeds, Leeds!
Jackson, a lifelong Leeds fan who was coached by Paul Hart in the Elland Road youth ranks, is not the only Mariners employee with connections to the Yorkshire giants.
Peil, the chairman, is a Whites supporter, while Jackson’s assistant Danny Schofield – the former Huddersfield Town and Doncaster Rovers manager – worked in the Leeds Academy, and Mariners analyst Andres Clavijo served under Marcelo Bielsa.
Ryan Edmondson played for Leeds’ U18s side, then managed by Jackson, which won the Professional Development Northern League title before making his first-team debut as a 16-year-old.
The Harrogate-born striker, 22, recently joined the Mariners from Carlisle United and Jackson added: “I know what Ryan’s capabilities are and what his potential is too.
“He’s a young player who needs to get his career back on track and I think he’ll score goals here because we’re a team who create a lot of chances.”
Jackson keeps a close eye on Leeds’ fortunes and has been delighted to see Academy product Gray firmly establish himself in their first team this season.
The 17-year-old midfielder made his debut in the 2-2 Championship season opener at home to Cardiff City and has since confirmed his reputation as one of the finest young talents in British football.
Jackson said: “Archie has been outstanding and surpassed anything that anybody thought he would do.
“I watched the highlights of Leeds’ win against Norwich last week where Archie tracked back, won a tackle and then beat an opponent.
“He’s a phenomenal talent and certainly has a fantastic future ahead of him so I’m so pleased for the whole family.
“Archie can go as far as he wants and I’ll be watching from afar.”
From one Leeds lad to another
Jackson was not scarred by the ordeal of being axed by MK Dons and instead took the positives from the experience. So when Montgomery, another Leeds lad who started out in the Whites’ Academy, let him know there might be an opportunity Down Under, he was quickly sold.
“Losing your job is a very difficult time for anyone and I had to do a lot of reflecting,” Jackson explained.
“I was up and down a lot but I got a lot of support from my friends in football and was given a lot of good advice.
“Losing my job knocked my confidence a little bit, but not my ambition of what I still wanted to achieve as a manager.”
Jackson and Montgomery both hail from Leeds, but their paths had not crossed until the dark days of lockdown.
Jackson remembered: “I’m close with Monty now and when he said he might be moving on, I knew it was a chance to put my CV in.
“During the pandemic, we connected when I did a webinar for Wollongong Wolves when I was with the Elite Under-18s at Leeds United.
“It was about youth development and Monty was on the webinar, so afterwards we kept on chatting and exchanged numbers.
“We’ve kept in touch ever since and he was someone who was very supportive when I lost my job at MK Dons.
“Then, all of a sudden, he said, ‘there might be an opportunity here’ and I think he spoke well to the club about me as well.
“I really appreciated that because he wanted someone to continue the outstanding work he’d put in place.
“I think what Monty achieved here last season – winning the title against the odds – and what Ange Postecoglou did at Brisbane Road and Melbourne Victory has really raised the profile of the A-League.
“I’ve already come up against some really fantastic managers and teams in my short time here. I think people underestimate the A-League.”
Was there any sense of trepidation in following in Montgomery’s title-winning footsteps?
“Whenever you go into a new club as a manager is always going to be a challenge,” said Jackson.
“I had the challenge of being in the relegation zone at MK Dons and the challenge here is one of expectation given what happened last season.
“I know which I’d prefer and the hierarchy here knew it would be a challenge to rebuild after losing five first-team players at the end of last season.
“But in life I always see things as an opportunity and I say that all the time.”
Retaining their A-League title will take some doing, with the Mariners having lost a handful of players since last season’s fairytale success.
But there is no shortage of desire and ambition from Jackson and his players as they bid to continue their outstanding run of form.
Several young players have starred for Jackson’s team, who extended their unbeaten A-League run to 10 games with a 2-0 win over Brisbane Roar last weekend.
Not since the 2011-12 season – when they finished top of the table – have the Mariners enjoyed such a run of games without defeat.
Jackson said: “I see Danny, who’s a fantastic coach, and myself as a long-term pairing because we’re so aligned but he challenges me too and we complement each other so well.
“I knew Andres very well from our time together at Leeds under Marcelo.
“All the staff here have been fantastic and the players are a group who want to learn and to achieve things.
“When you have players with that hunger and desire, who want to reach the next level, you’re always going to have a chance.”
Jackson is loving life down under but, looking long-term, he admitted: “I want to coach at the highest level possible.
“Coming to this part of the world, and coaching in the AFC Cup, you realise the enormity of Asian football, for example, in China and Japan.
“I’ve got ambitions to manage at the highest level.
“I know I’m on a journey and I’m learning all the time – I know the experience of MK Dons will hold me in good stead, as long as you learn from it.
“Like any player, you have to learn from challenging moments otherwise you’re not going to get better.
“You have to reflect and make adjustments and that’s what I did in the summer.
“But I want to live in the present because if you start to look ahead then you lose focus.
“Making sure I live in the here and now has already paid dividends since the start of the season.
“For me, I’m looking at the next game, which is Adelaide United away on Saturday.
“Our target is a top-six finish and then, in the play-offs, as the Mariners showed last season by reaching the Grand Final and winning it, anything can happen.”
By Ross Heppenstall