‘‘IF I listened to the fans, there is a good chance I’d be sitting with the fans,’’ Jets coach Gary van Egmond said on Wednesday after ringing the changes to his underperforming side.
For sheer bloody-mindedness, it’s hard to beat the Jets coach.
For nearly two seasons now he has stuck to his game plan, using the players he thinks fit the bill, freezing out the ones who don’t, and staring down the critics as the losses pile up.
But it appears someone at the club is listening, and perhaps that person has pointed out to van Egmond that if he doesn’t try something different, he may well find himself in the stands anyway.
It’s not the fact that van Egmond has made mass changes; he does that every week. It’s just that the changes involve players who have barely been sighted off Nobbys this season – Michael Bridges, Taylor Regan and Adam Taggart – and are the very changes fans have been crying out for as their frustration mounts.
The only thing missing was a recall for Kasey Wehrman.
It’s unusual for van Egmond to declare his hand so early in the week. Clearly the club is keen to get the message out before tonight’s match at home against the Heart, because not only are they losing games, they are losing fans.
Last week’s loss to Western Sydney was the tipping point, and not just because the Jets fell out of the top six.
The match highlighted two things: Wanderers have come a long way in a short time and the Jets have gone backwards.
When the Jets started the season with 12 points from six games there was cause for optimism – not because they were playing well, but because they weren’t. Marquee man Emile Heskey was also scoring goals. Imagine how things will go when we really click, was the refrain.
Meanwhile, Wanderers were looking like a side thrown together in a matter of weeks – as they were. It took them until the fourth round to find the net, and they had 10 points from their first nine games.
Yet rookie coach Tony Popovic was unmoved. They were proving hard to break down, he said, and the goals would come.
Fast forward to Saturday’s game, and if you had just landed from outer space and were asked to pick which was the start-up club, there would have been only one answer.
Since he took over from the sacked Branko Culina early last season, van Egmond has espoused a possession-based, up-tempo passing game.
When the side he inherited from Culina struggled to play that way and missed the finals, van Egmond had a clean-out and brought in a host of promising young players he thought could do the job.
Yet, as we approach the business end of the second season of his second stint at the club – his first brought the 2007-08 grand final victory – the most positive thing you can say about the Jets is that they try hard.
They had 65per cent of possession against the Wanderers but struggled to get out of their own half. Wanderers, as most clubs have done against the Jets this season, preyed on the fragility of the Jets’ passing and, when the inevitable turnover came, they counter-attacked down the channels left vacant by fullbacks committed higher up the park.
It has been the same story for two seasons.
In a conversation with a Jets fan this week, the topic turned to who had been Newcastle’s best player this season.
By process of elimination, we settled on goalkeeper Mark Birighitti. The club’s player of the year award last season went to the man whose spot he has taken, Ben Kennedy.
Now, you’re allowed to have a good goalkeeper. In fact, it helps enormously. And van Egmond has found a beauty in Birighitti, who was stuck behind Eugene Galekovic at Adelaide. But when your keeper is your best player week in and week out, you have problems.
One major problem with the Jets – and it’s not a new one – is that they don’t have a cutting edge. They don’t have a No.10, they don’t have anyone who is genuinely good on the ball, or anyone with a passing game that can hurt the opposition.
One class player – even one whose better days are behind him – can have a huge impact on a team, as Sydney have shown with Alessandro Del Piero. But to be a genuine contender you need a few.
Wanderers had Shinji Ono, Youssouf Hersi, Aaron Mooy and Mark Bridge constantly asking questions of the Jets.
And this isn’t the English Premier League, where a rich owner can buy a title.
The A-League is a level playing field. Each club operates under the same salary cap, is entitled to the same marquee player exemptions and can have five visa players.
Jets fans are entitled to ask where is our Del Piero, Ono, Hersi, Archie Thompson, Marco Rojas, Marcos Flores, Thomas Broich or Besart Berisha. Maybe they are here, but for whatever reasons – confidence, fitness, belief, opportunity – we are just not seeing it at the moment.
And yes, the Jets have Heskey. He is a great player who is really having a go. But he is a finisher, and if you can’t get the ball to him, you may as well play one of the Wiggles up front.
Fans have been asking why, despite van Egmond’s eternal tinkering, some players continue to get selected despite performances that are not up to A-League standard, while others are not given the same opportunities or patience.
They have been clamouring to see more of Bridges, but until this week he was going the way of Wehrman, who was deemed surplus to requirements last season and denied the opportunity to show that he still had something to offer.
Newcastle’s three clean sheets have coincided with two rare starts for centre back Regan, last year’s Ray Baartz Medal winner.
Then there’s young striker Taggart. Socceroos coach Holger Osieck thought enough of Taggart to select him in a developmental squad for the East Asian Cup qualifying tournament in December despite him not getting a run at the Jets.
Taggart scored two goals then found himself back on the Jets bench or playing in the youth team.
Van Egmond’s argument was that he has room for only one striker in his 4-2-3-1 formation, and that man is Heskey.
Now that he has found a spot for Taggart, would it be too much to ask to pair him up front with Heskey, as Liverpool did with Michael Owen, and maybe throw Bridges in behind them in a Del Piero role to open things up.
The season is not beyond salvation for the Jets, and fans will be happy to know that someone is listening. Will it be a case of too little, too late? Hopefully not, but at least we won’t die wondering.