The Newcastle Jets sit six points behind the reigning champions from the Harbour City, after some very barren years, which saw the Novocastrians burn through coaches at an alarming rate, survive the horror of the Tinkler ownership era, and not come close to making a finals appearance.
However, the club may have made its most important signing in June 2016, with the appointment of Lawrie McKinna as chief executive.
When it comes to contributions to the A-League, Lawrie McKinna’s name must rank right near the top of the list. He was the inaugural coach of the Central Coast Mariners and took the fledgling team to the grand final in the league’s first season – a feat they repeated in 2008.
He moved into a managerial position with the Mariners when Graham Arnold took the clipboard, which ultimately led to their first A-League title.
McKinna insisted that the club’s players and staff engage with the community, making the small organisation such a raging early success story. More than a coach, he was a community liaison and game promoter, often heard on local radio stations, giving his all to the job of not only coaching the team, but getting the Central Coast public invested.
One of the greatest games in A-League history occurred during this era – a midweek game that broke the ground record at Central Coast Stadium on December 22nd, 2007, when Sydney FC scored a penalty with the last kick of the game to win a classic match 5-4.
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McKinna was so popular on the coast he became the Mayor of Gosford.
But after the amalgamation of the council with Wyong, and a brief dabble in federal politics, he yearned to return to his first love. An offer to help out the beleaguered Mariners, who were close to sinking into Brisbane Waters in what became known as the Walmsley era, was declined.
Instead, the team at the northern end of the F3 derby acquired his services.
Football in Newcastle has such a chequered history at national league level, it could star in its own drama series.
Passionate, turbulent, fractious, united and divisive in almost any given month, Newcastle remains one of the great football cities, with a history longer than any sport anywhere in Australia.
Now, after a season to settle in, McKinna is once again proving himself the great fixer and uniter of the game. He has brought rival support groups together, increased the team’s off-field presence, re-engaging the club with a knowledgeable and therefore wary football community.
Acquiring the services of highly successful coach Ernie Merrick with local legend Clayton Zane as his assistant has proved a success. In a season where crowds have been a concern, the Jets have bucked the trend, with a healthy increase in support, highlighted by almost 30,000 fans at the last two home games, against the Mariners and the Roar.
The Jets presently sit comfortably in second place after 16 rounds, a seven-point buffer on third-placed Melbourne City accentuated by a goal difference 16 to the better.
This from a club widely tipped to add to their wooden spoon collection in 2018.
Lawrie McKinna might use wooden spoons to stir his porridge but he has no need for them in football. The A-League need more like him.