With his team on the cusp of A-League glory, Central Coast Mariners coach Graham Arnold says his club is fighting its biggest challenge - a host of European clubs looking to prise away his best players.
Next week the Mariners, who have built their squad by developing local talent, will lose their three best young players to overseas trials. Attacking maestro Tom Rogic, 20, will train with Celtic, keeper Mat Ryan will link with Rangers and Bernie Ibini will spend 10 days with Club Brugge.
Fairfax Media understands the 13-time Belgian champions and former European Cup finalists have also submitted an offer of €250,000 ($309,000) for Ibini's services but the Mariners are holding out for a bigger deal and hope the Nigerian-born striker will impress enough to warrant an increased bid.
Ibini will begin his trial after playing in Saturday night's match against Melbourne Victory in Launceston, a potential grand final preview that pits the league's two in-form teams against each other.
The Mariners have learnt Brugge have been monitoring their matches online this season, and are also interested in making substantial offers for Rogic and Ryan.
Arnold is desperate to keep the pair, and will offer Rogic terms to make him the club's under-23 marquee next season. Ryan is also in line for a sizeable contract if he stays.
While the lure of European football is strong, it should not be forgotten the Mariners - who have lost three grand finals - are four points clear in first place and well placed to break their championship duck, if they can keep the star trio.
''For me as a coach, it's disappointing. I'm proud of the fact that the kids are getting recognised and developing well but when you build a squad in June-July-August, you don't plan to have it taken away in January,'' Arnold said. ''The hardest thing for us is the salary cap. It's not quite a restriction of trade, but when you've got to fit 23 players into a salary cap, $2.5 million doesn't go far. All of my kids are on minimum wage, or a little more, and if they do get overseas offers, it's attractive for them. I've always wanted to make them millionaires but when you're chasing a championship, losing players is tough.''
However, Arnold, who spent a stint in Belgium with RFC Liege, said if Ibini were to leave, at least he would be heading to an excellent club that would give him a chance to shine. ''I want all the boys to make the right move if they leave, and Club Brugge are one of the top teams in Belgium,'' he said.
The Mariners have agreed to sign midfielder Nick Fitzgerald, 20, who began his career in the Mariners youth team, from Brisbane for the next two seasons. Arnold said they would ask the Roar to release him this month if Ibini departs.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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