A few months back, the family and I took a three-night holiday in Newcastle to celebrate my eldest’s 17th birthday. I must admit to never having spent much time in New South Wales’ second-largest city, despite residing just a couple of hours south of it.
It is a stunning place. Kilometres of glorious coastline is juxtaposed with elements of bohemian culture, inner-city fine dining, and the homely and rural dwellings that still exist just a hop skip and jump away from the city centre.
The people were friendly, the weather perfect and McDonald Jones Stadium, which I had only visited a handful of times, was a talking point for the entire family both on the way in and out.
I informed my kids that Newcastle’s Jets and Knights co-inhabit the stadium; boring them both to tears with stories of the egg-ball boys and their two premiership years of 1997 and 2001. Those triumphs had sent the region into an orgasmic spin, as had the 2007-08 A-League championship, won when Newcastle defeated derby rival Central Coast in the final match of the season.
To say Newcastle is proud of such sporting achievements is an understatement. The city of around 340,000 people wears an expected chip on its shoulder, often faced with intimidating odds when up against the bullies from the big smokes around Australia, while also possessing a fierce determination to knock off the supposedly more glamorous sides.
The ability to fight just that little bit above one’s weight is respected and admired in Australia. Such a willingness is indentured in the cultural and sporting psyche of Novocastrians.
Over the last week, that resolve and fortitude has been tested.
Carl Robinson arrived in Newcastle early in 2020, with the goal of returning some respect and dignity to the Jets’ brand following the dismissal of former manager Ernie Merrick. After failing to lift the Jets into the finals in 2018-19, things had gone further south for Merrick, as underresourced as he was.
Starting with a team sitting last on the ladder and just two wins from 11 matches, Robinson made an instant impact.
By season’s end, the men in red and blue had become one of the form sides in the competition and but for an appalling start to the 2019-20 campaign, would have advanced easily to the finals. All of a sudden the Jets had come to life and Robinson looked to be the reason.
After a 406 game playing career, the Welshman entered managerial ranks with the Vancouver Whitecaps between 2013 and 2018 and pounced on his second opportunity as a mentor when the Jets sought a replacement for Merrick.
What he immediately produced was impressive and important for the league, with a competitive Jets side more likely to keep them afloat amidst rumoured financial difficulties. With debt crippling the club and owner Martin Lee keen to offload what had apparently become a burden to his financial portfolio, new owners were sought and found.
As the negotiations played out, CEO Lawrie McKinna talked a hopeful and big game to the fans, no doubt working feverously behind the scenes with potential new Chinese owners Sky Jade Capital. Sadly, an 11th-hour withdrawal has left the club in dire straits.
Over the last two seasons, Lee’s investment in the club had dried up to a trickle, with both A and W-League squads looking rather bareboned. If Robinson knew the full extent of the financial goings-on in the Hunter and Lee’s apparent desire to depart, he was certainly a brave man to take on the gig.
However, his concerns for Newcastle’s welfare briskly departed when he became the new Western Sydney Wanderers manager, as the red and black board stunningly acquired his signature in a whirlwind few days following the shock departure of Jean-Paul de Marigny.
The move leaves the Jets scrapping to make a new appointment, stressed by debt and facing a potentially dangerous future without a committed owner. Should new investors be found, the club may survive beyond 2020. Should they not, Australian football could lose a wonderful club and a key market.
An A-League without Newcastle cannot come to pass. Whether FFA, other clubs, private investment or a combination of all three is required to secure their short-term survival, everything must be done to ensure that the famous blue and red kit remains in the top flight.
Any other result is purely tragic.