Two months ago, canny Newcastle Jets coach Ernie Merrick described his Newcastle Jets squad as “the strongest squad since I’ve been at the club.”
Eight years ago, the Newcastle Jets were celebrating an uncharacteristic Tony Vidmar blunder, which allowed Mark Bridge to slot home the most important goal of his career, in the 2008 A-League grand final.
The 1-0 victory over the Central Coast Mariners followed a stunning 3-2 extra-time victory over the Queensland Roar. It was a remarkable title triumph for the big town/small city where rugby league is king.
That Jets team, playing in those forgettable but beloved gold and white jerseys, were defined by a team culture built on both quality and personality. It was a balanced mix of graft and skill, boasting the stingiest defence in the regular season and an attack that knew how to get the job done.
Fast-forward to the 2014-15 season and the Jets were an embarrassment. Three wins, 55 goals conceded and just 17 scored delivered perhaps the most deserved wooden spoon since the New Zealand Knights were a thing.
So when the FFA finally jettisoned Nathan Tinkler last May, there was a huge sigh of relief among Newcastle fans. It was time to go back to basics, it was time to rediscover a bit of pride.
In came then 33-year-old Scott Miller, an unknown entity though recommended by Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou. A case of jobs for the boys or a legitimate bright newcomer? Opinion was divided.
There was a clean up of the roster and Miller went about recruiting defensive reinforcements with a local flavour. Most of the funds went into signing Mateo Poljak, Cameron Watson, Nigel Boogaard and Jason Hoffman.
It was clear Miller was looking to improve the club’s organisation and structure before working on finding fluency in attack. Not attractive, but pragmatic. His first task was a heal a fractured dressing room, which had disintegrated under the reign of Phil Stubbins. As mentioned, back to basics.
Four games into the season and the Jets were equal second, defeating Wellington Phoenix, Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City. They were back playing with pride and they looked defensively sound, yet it was an unsustainable run.
They were converting chances at a ridiculous rate (six from 12 shots), way too high to maintain, and they were conceding the most shots of any A-League team (17 per game).
The inevitable slip arrived and did not halt until a mini-purple patch in February which had fans dreaming of an unlikely finals berth. But a 2-0 loss to Perth Glory on March 7 ended any hopes of returning to the top six after a five-season wait. That has now become six seasons.
Miller had a tough job, but at the start of the season he admitted missing the finals would be considered a failure. Unfortunately, he has failed by his own pass marks, but there are signs he has developed a good base to push on from.
The ongoing uncertainty about the Jets’ future, with Football Federation Australia stating numerous times a sale was imminent, would not have helped. Miller did an admirable job in the circumstances.
Now, it is up to the FFA to finalise the Jets’ sale. It has taken too long already.
A-League chief Damien de Bohun has said a new owner will be in place before he leaves his role with the FFA, which is in June. The two parties involved in negotiations are reportedly Chinese businessman Martin Lee and Hawaiian entrepreneur Jeff von Schmauder. Fans can only hope the FFA’s predictions are spot on this time.
Stability is what Miller needs to take this team to the next level, a level where they can be considered genuine finals contenders leading into the 2016-17 season. Much will also depend on recruitment, as it did this season.
A lot was always going to hinge on the incoming attacking stocks during Miller’s debut A-League campaign, as outlined during the pre-season.
The arrivals of Leonardo, Milos Trifunovic and Labinot Haliti were all Jets fans had to look forward to in the final third. Haliti went down early to a season-ending injury, Leonardo struggled to gain full fitness after spending time out of the game and Trifunovic, despite impressing in patches, spent too much time offside and missed too many sitters. He has now departed for Kazakhstan.
So while Miller managed to improve the defence – the team conceding 41 goals – he did not find the same improvement in attack, with the Jets’ 28 goals the worst in the league by a fair margin.
January arrivals did show promising signs of Miller’s ability to identify talent, however.
Steven Ugarkovic was exactly the type of deep-lying midfielder the Jets were missing – a player with a wide passing range and who is not afraid to push forward. Morten Nordstrand has enough quality to become a prolific A-League marksman given a full pre-season.
The Jets started playing some decent football in the final third during the last three months, with Nordstrand and Leonardo particularly linking together well. It is a partnership that needs to remain intact for next season.
With a number of players coming off contract – Mark Birighitti, Enver Alivodic, Leonardo, Ben Kantarovski, Nordstrand, Jason Hoffman and Ryan Kitto – Miller has some tough decisions to make. The Jets need five new signings – a centre-back, fullback, two creative central midfielders and a striker.
Nordstrand and Leonardo have both proven their quality and must be re-signed, as should Birighitti, as long as no offers from overseas are forthcoming. They are no-brainers.
The key is for the FFA to either provide the funds to secure the services of these three crucial cogs or to finalise a sale so the new owners have time to do the business. The faster an ownership deal is done the better, because the longer it remains unsolved the less chance Newcastle have of pushing forward.
Under Miller, the Jets have the right man to lead this team on the field. He has been criticised for his negative tactics at times, but that was a necessary evil in the name of gradual progression. You build character through fight and determination. Then you can look at implementing flair.
Miller can come across as overconfident and at times arrogant, but those are qualities you want in a coach; if they can be translated into a harmonious dressing room. And that is what Miller has done. There is a belief within this squad that has been missing for some time.
Now, Miller needs quality, and he will not get that without an owner who shares his confidence and belief that the Newcastle Jets can rise back up the table.