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PREMIERS: Central Coast crush Phoenix dreams & end 12-year wait with final day win

The Central Coast Mariners have been crowned Isuzu UTE A-League Premiers for 2023-24 after a wet and wild 2-0 win over Adelaide United in the final match of the regular season.

Mark Jackson’s side entered the match needing just a point to confirm their spot on top of the ladder, but claimed all three thanks to a goal from an unlikely source to end a 12-year wait for a Premiership as well as Wellington Phoenix’s hopes of a first ever major trophy.

After a nervy opening, it was defender Jacob Farrell who stamped himself into Mariners folklore in the 36th minute, scoring his second goal of the season at the perfect time to spark delirium at a drenched Industree Group Stadium.

Then, Mariners medalist Max Ballard seized on a mistake from Ethan Alagich and thundered home his finish to get the Premiership party started late in the second half.

It means that after 27 matches, the Central Coast finish top on 55 points, two clear of the Phoenix and with a club record 17 wins for the campaign.

That is quite extraordinary when you consider they started this season with four straight losses as Jackson adjusted to life in the Isuzu UTE A-League with a squad that had undergone a significant overhaul after last season’s Championship triumph.

For Adelaide, this marks the end of a season to forget. Carl Veart’s men finish eighth as they bid farewell to Nestory Irankunda, who will now head off to Bayern Munich after featuring for the A-League All Stars against Newcastle United in their historic double-header on May 24.

However, it was the Reds who actually started faster in Gosford, forcing Danny Vukovic into some good saves as Stefan Mauk and Zach Clough, in particular, loomed dangerously.

The Mariners produced a quality early chance as Brian Kaltak thundered a header into the crossbar from a Mikael Doka free-kick and it was the set piece prowess of the Brazilian that also produced the go-ahead goal.

Doka’s pinpoint delivery put the ball on a platter for Farrell, who made no mistake with his close range header to give the Mariners one hand on the trophy.

In a way, the 24-year-old full-back-winger hybrid is the perfect symbol for his side’s season.

It was a slow start to this Isuzu UTE A-League campaign for Doka, who did not provide a goal contribution in his first 13 matches in the competition, but he has settled in beautifully and become the star he was supposed to be. Just like the Mariners.

Since February 3, the Brazilian has provided six goals and nine assists in all competitions, including four contributions in his last four matches in the A-Leagues as Jackson’s men chase a historic treble. He has been a truly sensational signing.

“(Doka) has taken a while by the coach’s suggestion to get settled in Australia and the A-League and it’s not an uncommon tale for foreign players, but he is fantastic value,” Network 10 expert Andy Harper said on Paramount+.

“He has incredible quality in that right boot of his as we’ve seen in the goal delivery but also the Brian Kaltak header. Both from Doka.

“But it’s his general play; he’s so inventive, he’s got great speed, he’s hard to knock off the ball, built low to the ground, has a great instinct for the game.

“The Mariners fans, if he stays for the next three years (after signing a contract extension), will really enjoy the next period for him here.”

At half-time, the Mariners introduced Ryan Edmondson in place of Alou Kuol as they looked to maintain their lead and set up a trophy lift in the rain in Gosford.

In the 53rd minute, Doka tried to add a goal to his evening with an audacious strike. The Mariners star let rip from well outside the box with plenty of dip and forced young Adelaide goalkeeper Ethan Cox to tip the ball over the bar.

On the hour mark, it looked like Irankunda may add one final moment to his extraordinary highlight reel. The 18-year-old unleashed a cracking strike from the edge of the box that looked set to fly into the top corner but Vukovic produced a stunning strike to deny him.

You sensed this was to be the Mariners’ night – and so it proved.

The home side held firm, controlling possession in a cagey second half where the trophy never looked likely to be ripped from their grasp.

Doka forced another save from Cox; Storm Roux cleaned up Irankunda and received a yellow card; the teenager was cautioned himself after flying into his old rival Jacob Farrell and his farewell night threatened to boil over.

Not long after, Balard pounced to crown a golden month with the goal that sealed the Premiership, just a day after being crowned this season’s Mariners medalist.

After failing to score in his first 74 Isuzu UTE A-League games, the Mariners midfielder now has three in his last five matches in the competition and the latest will be the sweetest of all.

Full time triggered celebrations from the Central Coast faithful, while you have to spare a thought for Giancarlo Italiano and the Phoenix, who fall just two points short despite putting together the best season in their club’s history by almost every metric.