F3 derby steals the show on opening A-League Men weekend

If Newcastle and Central Coast were watching the Sydney derby on Saturday they might have been thinking a couple of things. Firstly, is Jack Rodwell going to be a problem for us this season? And secondly, can we put on a better show tomorrow? The former is a “tbc” with a hint of promise based on the former England international striker’s 30m bullet off the bench that might have, but didn’t quite, break the deadlock. The latter is a resounding yes. Because, on the evidence of the Mariners’ 2-1 win over the Jets on Sunday, the F3 derby is back, baby.

This fixture used to be the bees knees of A-League Men. Ever since 2005, when Mariners’ striker Nick Mrdja broke Jets defender Andrew Durante’s leg in a Club World Championship qualifier, the heat was on. It was the fuel of the 2008 grand final’s infamous fire, cushioned by all the provincial charm of Lawrie McKinna tucking into some buttered raisin toast.

It even warranted a 2011 entry in the Urban Dictionary, of the “usually get a shitload down to the Gosford hotel hours before kick-off” variety. It reads further: “Jets fan 1: ‘How good was coast away?’ Jets fan 2: ‘Fucking amazing, can’t wait to do it all again next time.’”

The era of great coast aways did not last, though, and the slide came soon thereafter. It seemed like as soon as the F3 was renamed the M1 the rivalry quietly dissolved into the new bitumen. That was 2013, at the end of the Mariners’ golden Graham Arnold era and as the Jets slipped further into the depths of the Nathan Tinkler administration. Both clubs have since muddled their way through a conga line of coaches with varying degrees of success. The highs during this period can be attributed to Alen Stajcic and Ernie Merrick respectively and the lows are almost too numerous to count. The F3 derby became close to the least-watched and attended fixture in the league.

Suffice to say that the highlight of round one of 2021-22 was supposed to be the Sydney derby – a contest between last year’s grand finalists and a powerhouse under pressure – not its poorer cousin some 150km north. As it turned out, CommBank Stadium was not where the weekend’s action was at. McDonald Jones Stadium took that mantle a day later.

Granted, the opening half was goalless and largely take-it-or-leave-it. It was after break the game got interesting. Specifically, the 50th minute, when Josh Nisbet scored a nifty opener and the first of two Mariners goals within seven minutes.

It was also Nisbet’s first A-League Men goal from 42 appearances, this time as a makeshift striker. The 22-year-old is an academy product and much loved in the region. Perhaps befittingly, then, whoever was manning the Mariners’ social media accounts became so whipped up in glee they hit caps lock and belted out a feverish message.

The text was bigger than Nisbet himself, who became lost to the naked eye inside the crush of his enraptured teammates. And rightly so, for he is a top player whose composed slide home past Jack Duncan matched the similarly gorgeous preceding ball from Marco Ureña after a needless midfield turnover by Kosta Grozos.

Another homegrown player, Jacob Farrell, got the club caps lock treatment too. To be fair it was some header from the 19-year-old, in his maiden league game no less, anticipating a corner at the back post and timing his move perfectly.

For Jets fans this might have been a moment to hang their heads. Two goals down and out in the wet. As it happened, neither seemed to matter. Supporters wore goggles and snorkles to keep their vision clear through the both rain and the beer one poured over his own head.

By the time Valentino Yuel had come off the bench and headed home a cross from the “Port Macquarie Pelé”, Angus Thurgate, the match was madcap. An on-field scuffle had broken out, Beka Mikeltadze had hit the post and Newcastle’s push for an equaliser became so frenetic that referee Kurt Ams quite literally could not get out of the way. When he was not unintentionally obstructing play, Ams let it flow, and the result was one of only two opening-round fixtures featuring more than two goals.

Jets coach Arthur Papas was disappointed; his Mariners counterpart Nick Montgomery was not. But, like corduroy and cargo pants, coast aways are back in vogue.