Another A-League Men’s campaign is in the books save for Saturday’s Grand Final between Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne Victory, and again its plethora of on-field success stories have struggled for air amidst the administrative chaos that continually leaves onlookers to question the future of the game.

If the 2022/23 season’s Grand Final deal with Destination NSW equated, in sporting terms, to a season ending injury, then 2023/24 has been the season of constant niggles: the demise of the APL’s content arm KeepUp, interminable ownership woes at the Newcastle Jets, and the rumoured slashing of the APL’s revenue distribution to clubs, are but a few of the frustrations keeping the game from striding forward.

And while Nestory Irankunda’s red-hot potential, the Mariners’ AFC Cup title and stabilisation at Perth Glory had some feeling sanguine about the future, a fortnight out from the Grand Final came the most staggering blow, as three Macarthur players were arrested on gambling corruption charges.

‘[Gambling corruption] is a big problem around the world, and with football being the highest-profile sport and the one with the most spectators and games around the planet on a daily basis, it’s inevitably going to attract that sort of attention’, Simon Hill told Box2Box.

‘I’m of the opinion the game has shaken hands rather too much with the betting industry… and when it is so all pervasive, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that at some point players are going to get involved.

‘If it’s an isolated incident, then all [Australian] sports have their problems. If it’s found to be something more systemic, then we’ve got a much bigger issue, but I hope that’s not the case. We should stress that the three players, potentially about to become four, are not yet convicted of any crime but they have been charged, and they are pretty serious accusations.’

The final weekend of the season will see the Gosford Grand Final played off the back of ‘Global Football Week’ in Melbourne, as A-League Men’s & Women’s All Stars meet Newcastle United and Arsenal respectively, while on Wednesday Ange Postecoglou was welcomed home by 78,000 fans as Tottenham took to the MCG.

Does pitting the best of our local talent against iconic clubs abroad serve a healthy purpose? Does serving up and casing in on the Premier League’s status engender pride amongst punters in the local game? Possibly, although consensus on that front is impossible.

‘Our football is not the problem, and never has been. We’ve got a good standard of competition in both the men’s and women’s, our national teams are competitive, and our club sides, even on the regional stage as we’ve seen with the Mariners this year, punch well above their weight.

‘Unfortunately, it’s the people in charge of it who don’t do a very good job, so that’s what continually depresses us. But as for the actual football, if only people would see beyond the misconceptions, then we might be doing a lot better.’

Amidst the gloom have shone the Mariners, backing up last season’s Championship with the Premiership and AFC Cup despite a new manager and largely-overhauled squad. On Saturday they’ll host a Grand Final in Gosford for the first time, where to add a third trophy under Mark Jackson would leave them in unrivalled company as Australian treble-winners.

‘They’re one win away from immortality and if they win at the weekend, well, to be honest they’re the best team in club history in this country, for me. I would imagine they’d be favourites, and they’ve got home ground advantage which helps.

‘They were pushed to their very limits by a very good Sydney FC performance on Saturday, who were maybe a little bit unlucky not to take the game to extra time, but the Mariners, as they’ve shown all season, found a way, if not to win then certainly not to lose. They dug in and got their reward.’

If the Mariners’ storyline is all about the treble, then for opponents Melbourne Victory, it’s all about the man on the touchline. Tony Popovic arrives at his fifth Grand Final having lost all four previous, thrice with Western Sydney (2013, ‘14 & ‘16) and once with Perth (2019).

On two of those occasions Popovic’s sides entered as dominant Premiers, and he was much beloved by both fanbases. His relationship with the Victory faithful across three seasons has been far-less straightforward, and nobody could argue their league form this season was as engaging as that of second-placed Wellington, but much will be forgiven should he break his duck on Saturday.

‘Records are there to be broken, and he must be a half-decent coach to have reached five Grand Finals in the first place. I don’t think Popa will worry too much about it, of more concern will be how his team tops the Mariners juggernaut.

‘They’ll take a lot of heart and confidence from going over to Wellington and beating a very good Phoenix team in front of 33,000 rabid home supporters as well. They will feel like they’ve already been into the lion’s den once and got what they needed, so why can’t they do it again? They go up there with more than a puncher’s chance, for me.’