Monday, October 2, 2017

Jets zero in on A-League finals after flush preseason

With a new coach, new CEO, new roster and new style of play, could the Newcastle Jets be ready to end a finals hiatus that has hampered their course for the past seven seasons? 

LOOKING BEYOND: The Jets' squad during 2017/18 preseason training. Photo: Newcastle Jets

Already in their 2017 pre-season campaign they have knocked off Melbourne City, Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix.

In 10 trial games over the last three months, the Jets have lost just once in a closed-doors match against their arch-rivals Central Coast Mariners. 

While most of those games have been against inferior opposition, the results are runs on the board; good form.

A cautious assessment of their turnaround over the offseason heeds at suggesting the stars are aligning for the Hunter franchise, but its clear things have changed at the Jets and it’s fair to say their fans should be excited about the season ahead. 

WINNING RUN: Newcastle's results so far this preseason.

After a tumultuous few years following the ownership of Nathan Tinkler, in which the club transitioned from being run by the FFA to eventually being sold to the Chinese Ledman Group, the Jets appear to be a more settled club heading into season 12 of the A-League. 

But it hasn’t come easy.

The wooden-spoon they collected in April was followed by the sacking of then head coach Mark Jones after less than a year in the job. 

His tenure followed the 15-month spell under what the fans were led to believe was a rising coach in Scott Miller, who was touted as one of the best up-and-coming managers in Australian football. 

Miller’s sacking was dealt with by former Central Coast Mariners’ kingpin Lawrie McKinna after just a few weeks into his new Jets’ CEO role. 

Even for the charismatic football veteran, it was some entrance; by all means, one which had the loyalest of fans stirring in dismay at what their team had become. 

The direction of the club was further questioned once the wooden-spoon was in hand and another coach – Jones – was shown the door.

But proving old allegiances never die, the wily Scotsman went out and secured the services of countryman and two-time A-League Championship winner Ernie Merrick.  

While Merrick had been on a sabbatical after resigning from the troubled Wellington Phenoix midway through last season and was perhaps considered a risk by some fans, there is no doubting the man’s ability to coach with a career spanning 268 games in-charge and a near four-decade association with the elite levels of football. 

Some astute signings during the mid-year break allowed Merrick to turn-up on day one of preseason with firm optimism about what lay ahead. Recognising the problems that had a plagued Newcastle’s last couple of seasons would be important, but a fresh outlook on what was to come would be essential.

He wasn’t part of the past, so there was little point thinking about it. 

Roy O’Donovan was signed from the Mariners almost immediately after last season finished, Nikolai Topor-Stanley was picked up for a return to the club after four years at the Wanderers and a short stint in Dubai, Daniel Georgievski shifted from Melbourne Victory, and Dimitri Pertratos came from Brisbane Roar to join his brother Kosta – who signed in the January transfer window. 

Whether Merrick was looking for it or not, he’s clearly gained a lot of experience in that crop of signatures. Combined with captain Nigel Boogaard, Jason Hoffman and Wayne Brown, the Jets shouldn’t be short for a leadership group. 

The club’s evolving group of players in Andrew Nabbout, Nick Cowburn and Steven Ugarkovic will benefit from both the strong emphasis of experience in the squad and Merrick’s time spent at the Victorian Institute of Sport before becoming a full-time A-League coach. 

NEW LEADER: Merrick handing out instructions at training. Photo: Newcastle Jets

No doubt Merrick’s focus will be on developing those he has while adding the spice and knowledge of those on the recruited list. 

And the pool of players new to the club was iced with the recruitment of 30-year-old Venezuelan international, Ronald Vergas, just three weeks before the start of the season. 

Ronny, as they call him. 

The final piece of the puzzle according to Merrick. A player who can create goals and score just as many. An out-and-out creative dynamo. 

Signed to play No. 10, the linkage between former Fulham midfielder Wayne Brown, Vargas and striker Roy O’Donovan will be vital to the Jets success. 

Indeed, it provides a tantalising prospect of the partnerships that could invoke an exciting style of play under the play-to-win desire of Ernie Merrick.

In the 2016/17 season, the Jets notched just five wins from 27 matches in the A-League. 

A woeful record, really. 

Surprisingly, when they did win; they scored goals. Not once did they win scoring just one goal.
But when they lost, they lost big. Only once in their 15 defeats was it just a single goal they had scored against them. 

The fix? You ask.

With O’Donovan and Vargas ready to add the goals, and Topor-Stanley ready to sure up the defence with Boogaard, there is no reason why the Jets shouldn’t be aiming for the finals if they can remain injury-free.

POLARISING FIGURE: Former Mariners' striker Roy O'Donovan will be in the spotlight this season. Photo: Newcastle Jets

The turnover in players at the club, a fresh outlook, and a successful, confidence-boosting preseason have them locked and loaded for an effective campaign. 

A minimum of 12 wins – just over double what they achieved last season and one more than third-placed Melbourne City in 2016/17 – should be the target. 

It’s bold, but so it should be. 

For a club that has not made the post-season for what’s becoming close to a decade, they must play without fear or in awe of anyone. 

With three home games inside the first five rounds, including an opening-round derby away to the Mariners, by early November it should be clear which way the Jets’ season is headed.   

Perhaps they could have even amassed the perfect start. 

Is four of those targeted 12 wins too audacious?