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Matt's mission for more goals

If Matt Simon one day emerges as a genuine world-class striker, he'll look back on a steamy night in Malaysia as a genuine career turning point. After a goalless couple of seasons in the A-League with the Central Coast Mariners, Simon exploded to life with a hat-trick in May while playing for the Olyroos against Ireland's Under-23 side in the semi-finals of the Intercontinental Cup in Kuala Lumpur.

Two goals in the first 13 minutes - followed by a third in the 75th minute in a 3-1 victory - proved beyond reasonable doubt that the tall Central Coast junior could produce important goals.

'It was a massive turning point,' Simon said. 'It just gave me amazing confidence and reassured me that I did know how to score goals.'

As highly-regarded attacking forwards like Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns missed out, Simon's Malaysia performance earned him a spot as an alternate for the Australian team at the Beijing Olympics and a place in the Socceroos squad for the World Cup qualifier against Iraq in June.

And when over-age player Archie Thompson was injured against eventual-champions Argentina, the 22-year-old fulfilled a lifetime dream by earning a call-up for Australia's final group game against Ivory Coast in Tianjin.

As a late Salomon Kalou goal condemned the Olyroos to a 1-0 defeat that would eliminate them from the competition, Simon completed an unlikely journey when he came on as a 73rd minute substitute for Perth's Nikita Rukavytsya.

Less than three years earlier, Simon was an unknown youngster, playing for the Central Coast Lightning in the New South Wales Winter Super League. He watched in awe as the Mariners quickly grew from nothing as the A-League launched into the pride of the community - and then found himself thrown into the mix.

Simon was picked up by the Mariners at the start of the 2006-2007 season and found himself getting opportunities after an injury to experienced striker Nik Mrdja. The following season he was joined by international strikers John Aloisi and Sasho Petrovski from whom he says he learnt a lot.

Competition for places up front at Bluetongue Stadium has always been fierce - this season ex-Olyroo Dylan Macallister was added to the squad after returning home from Europe - but Mariners coach Lawrie McKinna rates Simon so highly that he usually finds him some game-time.

Even when Simon had flown back from the Olympics just six hours earlier, McKinna threw the 22-year-old on as a second-half substitute in the season-opener away to the Newcastle Jets on August 15. His faith was finally rewarded with the blonde bomber's first-ever A-League goal: an 87th minute header in a 1-1 draw.

'We've always known Matty's had goals in him, it was just a matter of when,' McKinna said.

The following week, in round two, Simon played all 90 minutes against arch rivals Sydney FC, earning a penalty in a 3-2 defeat.

And then in round three on August 31, the 22-year-old doubled his season tally by picking up the Mariners' important opening strike - a 31st minute wonder-goal in which his two exquisite touches got the better of Socceroo legend Craig Moore - in an impressive 4-2 away victory to the Queensland Roar. Finally, Simon's perseverance is paying off. Simon tells ESPNsoccernet that while it's a relief to break his A-League drought, he merely wants to concentrate on playing well for the Mariners instead of trying too hard to score goals.

Q: What did it mean to you to break your A-League duck in the opening game of the season?
A: It meant a lot to finally get the first goal out of the way. A little bit of pressure was building. To come home from Beijing and get that first one straight away was pretty special.

Q: Your near misses had become almost Mariners' folklore. How did you deal with that?
A: I tried not to think about it too much. I was close a couple of times with a couple called offside. I just didn't want to think about it and let the pressure build. I just try to concentrate on playing well and I knew eventually that one would go in.

Q: How big a turning point for you was scoring a hat-trick for the Olyroos against Ireland in the Intercontinental Cup in May?
A: It was a massive turning point. I hadn't scored a goal for the Mariners and went away with the Olyroos and got that hat-trick in the semi-final. It just gave me amazing confidence and reassured me that I did know how to score goals. Then I was really looking forward to getting back to playing with the Mariners.

Q: Describe the experience of playing for the Olyroos at the Beijing Olympics and how felt in the lead-up.
A: It was amazing over there. I first went over as an alternate player so that was quite hard, going over and training and then knowing you can't actually play. But to get the call-up for the last game - and it's a must-win game - and to get the full accreditation as an Olympian was amazing. It was good to be a part of the squad and to be called in at the end topped it off.

Q: What have you learnt from some of the veteran strikers you've played with including John Aloisi and Sasho Petrovski?
A: I've learned heaps from both of them and also from Nik Mrdja and Dylan Macallister in the short time he's been at the club. Johnny Aloisi is probably the striker who's done the most talking on the field that I've ever played with. He talks to you and directs you around the field and makes your job a lot easier. As for Sash, he's scored some wonder goals at this club and at Sydney as well.

Q: What do you need to bring to your game to become a prolific goalscorer?
A: Maybe a little more composure and just to keep working hard on the things that I'm not that good at. I need to work hard at training and not concentrate on scoring goals so much, just playing well and bringing other people into games and hopefully the goals will come.

Q: Finally, as a local junior, how do you think the Mariners team have become such a popular part of the Central Coast community and a model A-League franchise?
A: The club's absolutely huge. Everyone on the coast is behind it. The average crowd with the population we have in the area is bigger than any other club. It's a credit to the club and how they've gone about taking it to the community. All the work that the players do in the community helps too. They're a family club and everyone just loves having a team on the Coast.

• Jason Dasey ( ) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and two editions of SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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