Newcastle have struck a blow to Western United’s A-League finals hopes with a 1-0 win at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Can the Jets finally dream of mixing it with the big boys? As everyone else improves at a rate of knots, it’s a make or break season for Gary van Egmond.
What happened last season
Excellent question. If nothing else, Newcastle displayed an admirable commitment to inconsistency.
Give them credit for that, at least. You could see what Gary van Egmond wanted out of his first full season since he was called in to clean up the mess from the gruesome slaying of the Culina regime.
Only problem was you never saw it enough for Newcastle to be a real threat to anyone. While the better sides made things happen, the Jets waited for lesser sides to make mistakes, and then only sometimes decided to capitalise.
Possession football was – and still is – in vogue and like everyone else, Newcastle gave it a good crack.
But when they weren’t breaking down in transition or struggling to play it out from the back, they were lumping panicky long balls straight at Emile Heskey, in the hope he’d barrel over a handful of defenders and the ball would somehow find its way into the net amidst the chaos.
There was always the nagging feeling that, as cool as it was that Heskey decided to spend the twilight of his career in the Hunter Valley, he didn’t quite fit in with the plan.
It was as if van Egmond had no say in his signing and Heskey was delivered to his front door by a mysterious stork that looked an awful lot like Nathan Tinkler trying to make up for something.
But he was there, and so were the cameras and the scribes, so it was all chilled.
In the end, when Newcastle were good, they were pretty good. But when they were bad, they were terrible, and most other teams’ interpretation of ‘good’ was much better than their pretty good anyway.
Eighth on the ladder was fair enough, but the fact they were one point from the finals says more about the A-League than it does about the Jets. There’s potential there, but it’d want to bloody show itself soon.
What happened in the off-season
Newcastle have been one of the least active dealers in the transfer market, bringing in only a handful of fresh faces.
Just as well, because the wholesale changes made this time last season might have had something to do with why the Jets were so damn uninspiring.
The key one is veteran Dutch defender Kew Jaliens, who has clearly been signed to do what Patrick Zwaanswijk did for Central Coast and be the boss of a defence that desperately needs one. He’ll partner up with Connor Chapman and hopefully get a handle on things.
One-time next big thing Nathan Burns has been signed on a three-month loan – we’ll get to him soon – and Joey Gibbs has been snapped up on a free from Western Sydney to serve as Heskey’s understudy.
Dominik Ritter, Bernardo Ribeiro, Jack Duncan and Marko Jesic have been released, and none will really be missed, with the new or young blood ready to pick up the minimal slack they’ve left behind.
In keeping quiet over the off-season, van Egmond has thrown down the gauntlet to his boys that it’s on them to step up. And step up they must.
Why Newcastle fans should be excited about the 2013/14 season
Aside from Newcastle’s return to the emerald and cinnamon colours of the club’s spiritual predecessor, KB United, in their new away strip, it’s going to be good to see what comes of one of the best collection of young talents in the competition.
It’s as if van Egmond has been quietly stockpiling teenagers, hoping to stun his rivals en masse when they eventually blossom into an army of big, bustling, beautiful footballers.
If he can avoid getting kneed in the face, Mark Birighitti will want to show the world what he can really do with the gloves. If James Brown and Mitch Cooper can stay away from the treatment room, they might show just why they were so highly rated at Gold Coast United.
Razor-dodger Josh Brillante will relish any opportunity to prove he is not a right back, but a central midfielder, and a fine one at that.
There’s a lot to like about the wide players – the Sam Gallaway/Craig Goodwin combination on the left could be amazing, while James Virgili has promise and Andrew Hoole amassed a fair legion of fans in his short stint in the side early this year.
There’s a lot of ifs there, and not all of these players will realise their potential – that’s just the nature of the beast. But all it will take is for a few to kick into the next gear, and Newcastle can become a force to be reckoned with.
The main man that can carry Newcastle’s hopes
Back in a much simpler time, when all A-League clubs wore Reebok and chose their kits straight out of a teamwear catalogue, when an ageing Damian Mori was still banging in goals and Jason Spagnuolo was enjoying one inexplicably spellbinding season before burning out into nothingness, we were clamouring for rising stars to pin our hopes on.
Nathan Burns was perhaps the first youngster to emerge from the rubble of Australian football’s rebuild who looked like he could go all the way.
It’s easy to forget just how good he was in his two breakout years for Adelaide United. He was fast, cheeky, clinical, creative and together with strike partner Bruce Djite, immediately endeared himself to Reds fans – and neutrals across the country.
Then he had the hide to jet off well before his time, making a move to AEK Athens that looked ill-advised even before the global financial crisis decided to eat Greece whole.
He was always going to come back, and he does so this season on loan from K-League outfit Incheon United.
It’s disappointing that Burns’ loan spell won’t last the whole season – unless something changes in the interim, the 25-year-old will return to Korea in January, ideally as a first-team player.
It’s in his interest to make sure his form at the Jets is good enough to ensure that he is one when he gets there. That motivation alone should see him become key for Newcastle.
Whether A-League defences have figured out how to counter his particular brand of trickery since he’s been gone is unclear, but Burns will play an important role in the final third – especially with Emile Heskey injured for the opening portion of this season.
It’s anticipated Burns will start up front until Heskey is fit, at which point he will likely sit behind the brilliantly clumsy Englishman in the hope of doing what Michael Bridges did in the latter half of last season.
Verdict – Finals contenders
Sure, the Jets are finals contenders.
But in a salary-capped league where 60 percent of teams have a shot at the ultimate glory, if you’re not a finals contender in pre-season, you’ve got bigger things to worry about.
Newcastle can have a serious say this term but Gary van Egmond has a lot of work on to make that possibility a reality.
Almost every other A-League side has made ground quicker in the last 12 months than Newcastle. Most other squads are better on paper than the one van Egmond has had two years to assemble.
Maybe that’s because the best players in that squad are yet to emerge. We know what Chapman, Brillante, Gallaway and Goodwin were like last season, but young players tend to bolt from the blue and any of those names – or any of the others – could theoretically thrust themselves into proper Socceroos contention with the right kind of season.
Meanwhile, there’s the class of Zenon Caravella, which everyone seems to have forgotten about, and the epic randomness of Ruben Zadkovich, who will one day score a long-range goal so good it’ll go viral and earn him the global cult following he so richly deserves.
If Jaliens is the real deal and some of the kids grow up, Newcastle could go alright.
But it’s far easier to imagine them plodding along, getting tonked one week and stealing an upset the next before the inevitable three-way wrangle with Sydney, Perth and Wellington for sixth spot.