By Steve Wilson
Jets players have been given freedom to express themselves under Ernie Merrick’s positive management. (AAP: Dan Peled)
It has all the makings of a true sporting Cinderella story, in an arena more accustomed to tales of the grim variety of late.
Wooden spoon ‘winners’ in two of the past three A-League seasons, the Newcastle Jets are, remarkably, dreaming of ending this campaign with a first title in a decade.
And so, in a season of rancour and self-flagellation dominated by flares and anti-social behaviour, declining crowds and tv audiences, controversial refereeing and bitter divisions, the Jet’s performances stand out like a beacon.
As recently as 2015, the Jets were bankrupt, players were unpaid and the FFA was forced to revoke its licence.
Now, the club is a poster child for an efficiently run sporting franchise — one that’s re-forged meaningful connections with its fans and region.
Even more impressive than all that, perhaps, the club has pulled off the seemingly impossible in the round ball game: they’ve got us talking about the actual football.
“I’ve been told by a few of my friends down at Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix,” coach Ernie Merrick, formerly of those clubs, says, “that we are becoming their second team because they enjoy watching us play.”
If you are uniting the tribes in Australian football like that, you must be doing something right.
Changing the culture
Saviours come in many forms.
Merrick — the kind of quietly thoughtful coach that Scotland has a happy knack of producing — is an unassuming white knight.
But his impact, in tandem with chief executive Lawrie McKinna, a fellow Scot, and football operations manager Joel Griffiths, has been immediate and comprehensive.
Merrick may have failed to raise the Phoenix from their ashen state, but he knows how to win, with two championships to his name with the Victory, in 2007 and 2009.
Griffiths has proved a vital link back to Newcastle’s history and soul, and their only previous title-winning team in 2008, in which he played.
He also offered useful insight into making the right choices in player recruitment.
In came Daniel Georgievski, Roy O’Donovan, Dimi Petratos, Glen Moss and Nikolai Topor-Stanley, followed by Ronny Vargas, the Venezuelan playmaker, Argentine Pato Rodriguez and, in January, Riley McGree.
With the change of personnel came a revolution in approach.
“We had to change the whole mentality,” he says.
“It’s easier to do that if you’re bringing in new players, especially experienced players. Many of the recruits we brought in had achieved success in football previously.
“So we brought in the right players for changing the culture and giving a more positive outlook, play a brand of football where we were going to be very aggressive, on the front foot all the time. And not play a safe, counter-attacking kind of game.
“The boys bought in to it really well.”
If you build it, they will come
The locals responded positively, too. Crowds are down across the A-league this season but up in the Hunter, 18,200 watched on as Newcastle hosted leaders Sydney FC last weekend.
That match showcased all that is good about the second-placed side.
As Sydney FC have swept all before them in the past two seasons, they have assumed an aura of invincibility; sides they face are beaten before they take the field.
Not so Newcastle. From the off, the Jets took the game to their more-fancied opponents. Even when reduced to 10 men early in the game, they continued to attack, backing themselves in a contest Nabbout settled with a stunning strike from distance.
“The atmosphere on Saturday night was incredible,” says Merrick. “The crowd got us over the line.”
The goodwill lost at the end of former owner Nathan Tinkler’s tumultuous era has flooded back in the town.
Tinkler’s combination of hubris and incompetence that drove the club to financial ruin, has been replaced latterly by the gentle hand and deep pockets of Martin Lee, head of Chinese company Ledman Group.
It is a foreign-ownership model that works because the football men at the club have been allowed to run the show.
The world is watching
It’s been quite a week for the Jets and Naboutt.
Now assured of a first finals appearance in seven years, the besting of Sydney FC has reinvigorated the forthcoming finals period, previously thought in some quarters to be merely a coronation for Graham Arnold’s team.
The Sky Blues have been served warning now. And a season of discord in football in Australia now points towards a mouth-watering potential grand final repeat of Saturday’s fixture.
If that was a result born of an inner belief and self confidence, validation from outside has also arrived.
The impressive Andrew Nabbout has left the Jets to join Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds. (AAP: James Elsby)
Naboutt and fellow forward Dimitri Petratos were named in Bert van Marwijk’s first extended Socceroos squad, while the former put pen to paper on a $500,000 transfer to current Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds in Japan.
Merrick is confident his side has enough in its ranks to maintain momentum, but the one regret is that Nabbout will be absent from the conclusion to this story — even if he is moving on to bigger and better things with the club’s gratitude and blessing.
Nabbout may, however, have played himself in to contention for a part on an even bigger stage.
If his form trajectory continues at a similar pace in Japan, he is a credible potential bolter to make an impact in Russia later this year.
Were that to happen, it would be just one more reason to be grateful for Newcastle’s spectacular, uplifting revival.