Roy O’Donovan’s two-year A-League spell at Newcastle Jets is over with the club pulling their offer a contract extension.
The Newcastle Jets’ decision to re-appoint a former coach and star player may just have returned them to serious A-League contenders but it has also provided the first glimpse of the dangerous nature of running a ‘superclub’.
The decisions to hire Gary van Egmond and Francis Jeffers are sound and almost universally welcomed – but make no mistake – these are the decisions of a football club run by rugby league people.
When mining billionaire Nathan Tinkler added the Newcastle Jets A-League team to his racing empire before convincing Newcastle Knights members to hand over control of the NRL club, then announced his ambitions to get into the NBL and the Trans-Tasman netball, Australia had its first ‘superclub’.
Appropriately, there was great excitement about the economies of scale of such an enterprise and already ‘year-round’ sponsors have been signed on behalf of both clubs.
But Tinkler, and many of his senior staff, are dyed-in-the-wool Leaguies. They admit they don’t know much about soccer (rugby league fans don’t really call it football).
They certainly care about the round ball game, the Jets wouldn’t exist without them – but it’s not their thing.
So much so that Tinkler couldn’t wait to get his hands on the Knights before talking with potential players and coaches.
His enthusiasm resulted in the embarrassing Kade Snowden signing-with-the-Sharks-then-suddenly-not debacle on the one hand, but delivered the Knights Wayne Bennett on the other.
Tinkler and his team know precisely the Knights they want. They know every nuance of the team, every strength, weakness opportunity and threat.
But when the Newcastle Jets suddenly and savagely parted ways with star signing Jason Culina and his father Branko, they entered a vacuum.
What now? Who next?
Everyone in the Hunter Sports Group knows the reality and so some months ago they had the foresight to put in place an Advisory Board to direct them on such matters.
The problem is, that advisory board had just tipped them into the Culinas.
It’s a big wide world of professional football out there. DVDs of the next big thing or the one-was-a-big-thing arrive by the dozen every week at A-League clubs.
But when you own a football club without a coach and you need to make a move, and you’ve had your faith in your advisors shaken, and you don’t hold a firm opinion on the matter, what do you do?
You go with what you know.
You go with the proven product.
Cue Dutchy and Franny – the man who delivered the club’s only title and the classy former guest player, respectively.
They are good choices, as it happens. But they are not brave choices.
Gary van Egmond understands the town and league, both key. He is an excellent man manager and can galvanise a squad of disparate personalities. He is also a good technician/tactician, and a longtime friend. I’m thrilled he is back.
And Jeffers has enough class that he doesn’t have to be a star, he needs only to direct traffic to earn his keep. He has shown an ability to do that in his previous visit. His teammates looked twice as good when playing alongside him.
Good as they are, there is no retreating from the fact that this is ‘back to the future’.
The Jets could have had anyone, and they’ve grabbed a couple of old boys.
And they’ve done it because they were uncertain what to do next. They are one win and one loss into a long season and it’s better the devil you know.
This is observation not criticism. And for Newcastle sports fans, it’s a bit like complaining about the rubber band on the wad of cash you’ve just been given.
Further, it’ll all be moot if they give van Egmond a blank cheque to go sign a marquee player of his choosing.
But it is the first real strategic test of the ‘superclub’ – it won’t be the last.
And safety first doesn’t always pay.