It took 11 matches and nearly three months, but Central Coast finally have something to celebrate with a controversial 3-1 A-League win over Wellington to bring in the new year.
Striker Roy O’Donovan will likely face the ire of the match review panel for his second-half headbutt to Phoenix defender Manny Muscat at Central Coast Stadium on Thursday night.
Referee Kris Griffiths-Jones seemingly missed the nasty act, which came moments after Muscat had raised his arm to O’Donovan’s head.
But instead of sending O’Donovan off, Griffiths-Jones stunningly held up a yellow card – one of nine in the feisty affair.
It soured an otherwise absorbing show, enjoyed by a crowd of 10,073.
Coach Tony Walmsley had been counting on the return of Fabio Ferreira and Mitch Austin to the starting line-up, and it was his star wingers who scored two of the under-siege club’s three goals – even if one came courtesy of a suspect penalty.
The result will do little to boost the last-placed Mariners’ all-but deceased finals hopes, but its effect on the morale of disillusioned players will be immense.
Depending on other results, injury-ravaged Wellington could well slip out of the top six before this round is through.
Despite their victory, Central Coast were defensively disorganised and struggled when out of possession, which was often.
But the supremely skilful Ferreira and pacy Austin brought enough flair.
Tension started to build when, in the 25th minute, Alex Rodriguez was handed his fifth yellow card of the season for grabbing Ferreira around the waist.
But the real controversy came in the 27th, when Muscat was judged by Griffiths-Jones to have brought down Josh Rose in the box.
Replays showed Muscat appearing to successfully win the ball, but the decision had been made and Ferreira duly converted from the spot.
The next goal came just three minutes later when Roy O’Donovan ran unmarked down the right and crossed for Austin to open fire and beat Moss.
Phoenix striker Roy Krishna, playing with heavy tape on his fingers, left the field injured midway through the first half.
Despite his absence, the Phoenix had enough quality on field to change their fate.
But Ernie Merrick’s men lacked impetus, especially in the front third.
They arrived at the party during the second half, when Mariners back-up keeper Tom Heward-Belle was forced into numerous saves in quick succession.
He did well but could not keep Blake Powell from making good on fellow substitute Matthew Ridenton’s cross in the 67th minute.
Three minutes later Central Coast struck again when Michael Neill pickpocketed the heavily marked Vince Lia in the danger zone and slotted into the bottom corner.
Roly Bonevacia will join Rodriguez in serving a one-match suspension after also receiving his fifth yellow.