JETS coach Gary van Egmond says Jason Culina will be just another player at Hunter Stadium tonight. But for Culina it is far from just another game.
The Sydney FC midfielder has played in two World Cups and dozens of European Champions League games and won top-flight championships in Holland with Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven.
But it is unlikely he has ever had more motivation for a game than tonight’s showdown with the club he left in such controversial circumstances.
Culina and his father Branko were cast on the scrapheap by Jets owner Nathan Tinkler in October last year – for reasons that remain shrouded – and after 14 months of physical and mental anguish the former Socceroo gets his first chance for payback.
A Sydney spokesman said yesterday that Culina had knocked back a number of media requests for interviews this week, which suggests he would prefer to make a statement on the pitch.
Branko did not reply to texts or voicemail messages from the Newcastle Herald.
But Jason gave an insight into the steely mindset his former teammates will encounter tonight when he made his comeback last month from the knee injury Jets officials feared would end his career.
‘‘If people think that Jason Culina gives up or is not motivated, then they’re wrong ... I wanted it pretty bad, for myself and the people that were behind me too,’’ he said.
Asked about the Culina factor, van Egmond denied it had been discussed during Newcastle’s preparations this week.
‘‘I’ll be honest with you, it hasn’t really come up,’’ van Egmond said.
‘‘We know that Jason’s a good player, but Sydney have got a lot of good players.
‘‘So he’s just treated as another player for this week.’’
But Jets players Josh Brillante and Adam Taggart, who were not playing for Newcastle last season when the Culina affair unfolded, were well aware of the history.
‘‘It’s his old club, and anyone playing against their old club wants to have a good game, so it should be a good opportunity for him and good for the other boys to play against him,’’ Brillante said yesterday.
Taggart added: ‘‘Obviously he’s got a point to prove. The team as a whole has a point to prove, so I think it’s going to be a big game.’’
Culina made his Sydney debut against Adelaide on November 23, playing 22 minutes off the bench.
It was his first A-League game after almost two years on the sidelines. The 32-year-old has now strung together five games and appears to be growing in confidence and influence each week.
Culina signed a three-year deal to be Newcastle’s marquee player in February 2011, but never got to play a game for the Jets under the coaching of his father.
During pre-season training he aggravated a pre-existing knee injury and needed further extensive surgery.
Jets officials initially stuck solid behind their star player.
But then, on the day of last year’s A-League season launch, Tinkler sacked Branko and declared he was applying to have Jason’s contract ‘‘set aside’’.
The Culinas accepted financial settlements and agreed to confidentiality clauses.
Jason has silenced those who believed he would never play again, and Branko was recently appointed coach of Rockdale City Suns.