Danny Vukovic the living embodiment of A-League survival

Ultimately, Danny Vukovic's league-leading 13th clean sheet of the 2023-24 A-League Men season was also his most important, as the scoreless draw it earned against Sydney FC on Saturday ensured the 2-1 aggregate lead his Central Coast Mariners took into the second leg of the semifinal was enough set up a Grand Final date with Melbourne Victory.

The result wasn't without controversy; just ask Sydney boss Ufuk Talay. A healthy contingent of Sky Blues fans will no doubt have a view that Róbert Mak's 68th-minute effort, ruled out for obstruction by an offside Fábio Gomes, should have been allowed to stand. They will argue also that their side should have had two chances to beat Vukovic from the spot, after Dan Hall's officially decreed "incidental contact" with Jordan Courtney-Perkins early in the contest and after a late Mak attempt that careened into the arm of Max Balard, only for the limb to adjudged to have been in a "natural position."

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

But for all Sydney's control of the ball and territory as they attempted to overturn the first-leg deficit, the Joe Lolley-less Sky Blues forced Vukovic into action only four times at Central Coast Stadium, with their 16 shots producing just 0.97 expected goals.

Vukovic now has 19 clean sheets in all competitions in 2023-24; he is unbeaten in six games of the Mariners' triumphant AFC Cup campaign to go with his A-League Men-leading efforts. Only breakout Wellington Phoenix keeper Alex Paulsen had a better save percentage across the campaign, while only Paulsen and Macarthur FC's Filip Kurto were credited with more goals prevented. He won't better the 16 league clean sheets he kept with Sydney FC during their championship-winning campaign even if he does blank Victory in the Grand Final, but his 19 across league and continent have surpassed the 18 he kept at Racing Genk across the Europa League, Belgian Cup, Belgian Pro League campaigns of 2018-19.

It's been a momentous season in a remarkable career, one with deep ties to Central Coast.

That Vukovic was in goal for the Mariners in the first A-League Grand Final in 2006 is well known; it was an oft-repeated fact delivered in the build-up to last year's decider, in which he wore the armband on the way to what was the third championship in his career but the first in Gosford. Well known as this is, however, it retains a level of romance. Next Saturday, the league's second-youngest side will take the field at Central Coast Stadium 14 years after having the finale taken away from them and moved to Sydney because the stadium wasn't deemed fit for purpose; and they are on the precipice of an unprecedented treble of a premiership, AFC Cup, and championship.

But among the kids, 39-year-old Vukovic serves as the rock. Here today, as he was at the beginning. Doing his bit to single-handily drag the Mariners' average playing age out of kindergarten, he's become the kind of figure who helps to empower a young dressing room like the Mariners'. He's a high performer, yes, but also a veteran figure aware of his need to serve as a source of reassurance and encouragement, as well as an example of what it means to be a professional.

Yet it's not just the Mariners, or the A-League Men, that counts the veteran as an exemplar.

With his five appearances for Parramatta Power during the 2002-03 season, Vukovic will take the field on Saturday as the last remaining active professional from the National Soccer League after its collapse two decades ago -- standing alongside Scott McDonald, Liam Reddy, Kevin Muscat and Alex Wilkinson as just the fifth men's player with an Australian national league career spanning more than 20 years.

As a 17-year-old, he made his professional debut in a 2-2 draw against Adelaide Force in October 2002, called into Nick Theodorakopoulos' line-up after first-choice keeper Reddy was suspended for punching Olympic Sharks defender Mark Byrnes during a 2-1 loss the week before. Competing against him that day? Current Adelaide United boss Carl Veart, newly returned Melbourne City gaffer Aurelio Vidmar, and Ajax Amsterdam assistant Michael Valkanis.

At a time when the A-League Men lurches from crisis to crisis, Vukovic stands not only as the Mariners' bastion but as a living time capsule -- someone who has seen the highs and lows of the Australian game and lived the lessons imparted on those entrusted to serve as its custodians. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2016, the late Michael Cockerill profiled the goalkeeper among the then-17 remaining "survivors" who had transitioned from the "old soccer" of the NSL to the "new football" of the A-League.

"They've survived because they've adapted, and in many cases they've thrived," Cockerill wrote. "I'd like to think they remain valid because they understand. Because they value each and every game as full-time professionals. Because they know where they've come from -- where the league itself has come from -- and they've always worked hard to make the most of their good fortune."

Vukovic's is a remarkable story. One of many that will be brought to the coming week by both sets of players, coaching staffs and clubs. Yet unfortunately, these stories will inevitably compete with the continuing controversy and rancour that grips the A-League away from the pitch; figures off the field taking away the attention from those on it, while those on the sidelines sit around and wonder if they'll even have a league to watch in the future.

Primary among these distractions is the ongoing saga surrounding the arrest of Macarthur FC players Ulises Dávila, Clayton Lewis, and Kearyn Baccus on allegations of yellow card manipulation during A-League Men fixtures, as well as New South Wales Police's desire to speak to at least one further Bulls player. A plot that allegedly involved Dávila, a former Jonny Warren Medalist and club captain, systematically recruiting teammates to manipulate games to the benefit of an individual believed to be operating out of South America, it represents one of the biggest sporting scandals in recent Australian sporting history, let alone football.

Make no mistake; the league cannot be blamed for the circumstances. The timing of the arrests is unfortunate but almost inevitable with the looming offseason and suspects potentially leaving the country.

Unfortunately, this adds to the sense of malaise surrounding the A-League, which feels like it exists in a cycle wherein tales of off-field turmoil and existential dread seemingly begets tales of off-field turmoil and existential dread. Thus, a front-page story in News Corp papers on Saturday declaring "A-League on the brink of financial disaster," kicking off the latest round of doom scrolling, came as little surprise. It's a day ending in Y, after all, therefore the league must be about to collapse.

On Friday afternoon, Australian Professional Leagues (APL) chair Stephen Conroy was quick to address the arrests of the three Macarthur players -- albeit in the friendly confines of an interview with the league's broadcast partner, Network Ten. This was unequivocally the right move, given the seriousness of the offence. But this proactivity stands in stark contrast to the extended absence of him and league commissioner Nick Garcia from the discourse as the image of the A-Leagues is increasingly allowed to be portrayed as a walking corpse by invariably anonymous sources -- its strengths ignored as it lurches from crisis to crisis, awaiting the moment it collapses under the weight of its putrefaction.

Public comment doesn't necessarily translate to good governance, of course. Former A-Leagues chief executive Danny Townsend was often open to chatting but the interviews and articles that candor left behind mostly serve these days as a chronicle of missed opportunities, broken promises, and endeavours that hindsight has shown to be folly -- fires the current administration at the APL has been tasked with dousing.

But there's still something to be said for the captain declaring the ship is not, in fact, sinking. Because Vukovic, the Mariners, and Victory are probably going to give us a good story if they get the chance.