After a slow start to the Central Coast's Asian campaign, fringe Socceroo striker Dylan Macallister has emerged as a key figure as the Mariners try to emulate the feats of A-League rivals, Adelaide United.
He missed Central Coast's opening AFC Champions League game with a stomach bug and came on as a second-half substitute in the second game, away to China's Tianjin Teda on March 18th. But with fellow forward Matt Simon suspended, Macallister will have to burden more responsibility for the pivotal home game against Kawasaki Frontate, on April 8th.
The Japanese favourites lead Group H with four points from the Mariners and Pohang Steelers on two, and Tianjin with one. The top two teams will advance to the lucrative knockout stages.
Fans at the Bluetongue Stadium will look to Macallister and ex-Socceroo Nick Mrdja for goals in the absence of Simon, who topped the charts last season with 11 in 21 matches. Macallister scored just 4 (in 19) and Mrdja three (in 16). Even so, Macallister's ability to hold the ball up and impressive dribbling agility, despite his considerable size (he's 1.91m and 92kg), earned him a call-up to the Socceroo squad for the January Asian Cup qualifier away to Indonesia.
The 26-year-old was an unused substitute in Jakarta and overlooked for the subsequent A-League based squad to face Kuwait in March. But his skills have clearly registered with national coach Pim Verbeek. At youth level, Macallister quickly signalled himself as a rising star to watch, appearing in the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship - when Australia finished runners-up to Brazil - and the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship.
After scoring six goals in seven matches in qualifying, Macallister seemed destined for a place in the Australian under-23 side at the 2004 Athens Olympics only to be left out in favour of over-age player, John Aloisi. But his performances in qualifying caught the eye of Norwegian talent scouts and 2004 saw him begin a chapter in the Scandinavian country that saw him play for three clubs over a four-year period, including 30 appearances at SK Brann where former Scottish internationals Robbie Winters and Charlie Miller were among his team-mates.
But, without ever establishing himself as a consistent scorer in the Norwegian Premier League, Macallister returned home after being released by FC Lyn Olso last March. That gave him a chance to work again with Mariners' boss Lawrie McKinna who was his coach at former National Soccer League club, Northern Spirit, during Macallister's days with the national under-23 team.
Until a puzzling end-of-season slump that saw the Mariners lose their last five matches as the goals dried up, McKinna's tactic of using Macallister, Mrdja and Simon together in unison - with Sasho Petrovksi coming off the bench - worked well.
In his interview with ESPNsoccernet, the Manly-born Macallister - who played his junior career with the Manly-Warringah Dolphins, speaks about his first year with the Mariners, the challenge of playing in Asia's top regional competition and his international ambitions.
Q: Dylan, how would you sum up your return to Australia with the Mariners after your time in Norway?
A: It's been a fantastic 12 months since I came back. The Mariners have succeeded, I think you could say. We've had a good year. We've started well in the Champions League. Personally, my main goal was to come back and play regular games, which I did, after an injury worry for a few weeks. And getting picked in the national squad was a big highlight for me. So it's been a very successful year and I hope there's more of the same next year.
Q: How's it been playing at a club like Central Coast with so many good strikers to choose from and how are you different to each of your fellow forwards?
A: Matt Simon has really come on in leaps and bounds this year, scoring a lot of goals for us. Yes, both me, Matty and Mrdja are big and physical but I think the three of us offer something a bit different. I like to hold the ball up and win a lot of balls in the air and do a lot of the running. I haven't been as lethal in front of goal this year as Matt who's really found his stride. And Mrdja has been slowly been coming back from injury since the start of the season and only got to peak fitness towards the end. The next few months in the Champions League will be good for the three of us to really compete against each other.
Q: What was it like playing in the AFC Champions League in an unfamiliar place like China?
A: It was a great experience. We learned a lot of things going to China earlier on in a pre-tournament tour. It wasn't the best tour (in terms of results) but we learned about Asian clubs and what we would be eating and so on. Since then, every game we've played in Asia I think we've been improving. The way we played in China we haven't played as well since last year. It's really exciting times for us, coming up against the favourites of the group, the Japanese, and I think we'll give them a really good run for their money at home.
Q: You've played under him at the Mariners and also Northern Spirit in the old NSL. What's Lawrie McKinnna like as a coach?
A: Lawrie's been great for us this year. He's really straight forward, he tells you what he expects of you and he treats everyone the same. You can have a laugh with him but when it's time to work we get down and do the business. And he's a great ambassador for the club, always involved with the local community.
Q: Having been on the bench for the Asian Cup qualifier in Indonesia but left out of the team for the home game against Kuwait, how do you rate your international prospects now?
A: I spoke to Pim when I got left out against Kuwait. It was very disappointing but he wanted to go a different way and use a different style of striker and I could understand that. My form at the end of the A-League season wasn't good enough. But he said to me, and I believe it myself, that if I'm playing to my potential I'll be involved with the squad. I'd really like to cap off the end of this year or the start of next year with an international cap.
Q: What stands out as the highlight of your seasons in Norway and what do you remember of the Scottish players?
A: The highlight for me was probably scoring two on debut for my first club in Bergen, called Brann. That was at home and we won that game and it was a really good way to settle into my first club in Europe. And, yes, I played with a few Scottish players at Brann in Charlie Miller and Robbie Winters. They're both very experienced players with over ten years experience in the Scottish league. It was great having English-speaking players around and I learned a lot from them.
Q: What do you think of Pim Verbeek's criticism of the A-League?
A: It is a bit harsh some of the things he's saying, but he's the national coach and he has the right to give his opinion. That's one of the good things about him: he says how he feels. What he's saying is that we aren't Europe and we've got a long way to go. The teams in our competition are only four years old while some of the teams in Europe are 100 years old.
Q: Finally, what do you think your new short haircut has done for your image as a Manly-born, beach lover?
A: (Laughs) The haircut? Oh, I've just done it for a bit of fun. I've been wanting to do it for a while. It's something new. I've only had one game since then so we'll see what happens!
• Australian-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.