From villain to hero: Simon’s turnaround revitalises Mariners

The fans know him as one of the A-League’s pantomime villains, the battering ram with an uncanny ability to irk opposition fans.

In an A-League season of surprises, the Mariners’ climb from bottom to near-top has been remarkable enough. But the renaissance of captain Matt Simon – including seven goals this campaign and the successful completion of a course studying emotional intelligence in leadership – isn’t far behind.

Holder of the seventh-highest number of yellow cards in A-League history, he plays, in his own words, “on the edge”. But Simon is now as concerned with understanding his teammates’ psyche as he is with being a wrecking ball in the opposition penalty area, revelling in the role of leader and confidant in the Mariners dressing room. This is the side of Matt Simon the public has rarely seen, the velvet fist hidden inside the iron glove.

Matt Simon has never been one to shy away from on-field drama.Source:AAP

“To be honest [the course] jumped out at me – trying to be a leader at the club and be a good one, look into the emotional intelligence side of things (and see the) different characters of different people,” he said.

Simon was one of 126 players across the A-League and W-League who have received grants distributed by the players’ association (PFA) towards their studies – most are for post-football careers, but at 35, Simon is working on the here and now.

“We worked a lot on that sort of stuff at Sydney FC with (Socceroos emotion coach) Mike Conway,” he said. “The biggest thing is you need to understand yourself emotionally before you can understand other people emotionally.

“Once I started looking into different aspects of the game outside of just performing on the field, you learn quickly that everyone is a different character and everyone reacts to different situations. Once you understand that, and you can help people in different ways, you can really get the best out of people and then their performance even grows even more.

“‘(I’m) trying to understand the players, how they feel coming into training. And when you can see someone that’s down or a little bit different that week, just ask how they feel. Everyone’s wellbeing is really important.”

There must be a surfeit of wellbeing in the Mariners dressing room after a remarkable run of form that transformed them from easybeats to tabletoppers, though last weekend’s defeat to Western United knocked them off the summit.

For the first time in years, though, they will look down the table at Sydney FC when the two sides meet on Saturday night in Gosford, the champions struggling to come close to last year’s form. Simon knows the Sky Blue threat all too well, having won the title in his three years there.

“Sydney FC are a great team and a great club, but we played them once season and beat them, so there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Simon said. “We need to bounce back and put in a good performance, especially being at home.

“But obviously I’m enjoying my football this year; at 35 I feel fresh and good. When you’re scoring goals and you’re winning games you feel like you can play forever.

“It’s got to come to an end one day, but I’m not thinking like that at the moment.”

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