Newcastle Jets coach Ernie Merrick realises there is a long way to go but believes his side are capable of challenging for the A-League title.
Merrick’s only concern is whether their depth will hold up until the business end of the season.
Newcastle’s dream start continued on Saturday when they fought back from a 1-0 deficit to beat Adelaide 2-1 at Coopers Stadium – their fourth win from six games, and their third victory on the road from as many attempts.
Last season’s wooden spooners are now the competition leaders and have set up a top-of-the-table showdown with defending champions Sydney FC at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
It has been a remarkable turnaround, given that the Jets finished last season in disarray, losing their final six games of that campaign.
Asked at the post-match press conference if he thought his team were potential title contenders, Merrick replied: “I do see the right ingredients. When I won my first championship [with Melbourne Victory] I think we went the first seven games not only undefeated, I think we won all seven ... I think you've got to have a good start.”
The coach added a cautionary note when he said much would depend on how long Newcastle could keep their key players on the park.
“We’re only six games in, so we're keeping grounded,” he said.
“Whether you're top of the league or not, it's just about collecting three points every week … the difference is I don't know if we've got the depth when it counts.
“The last three or four games of the year and then finals you've got to have players fit and ready to go.”
The obvious hole in Newcastle’s line-up at present is marquee signing Ronny Vargas, who suffered a shocking broken ankle playing against Brisbane in round three.
Despite concerns that the Venezuelan might not play again this season, Merrick now hopes he could be back more than a month before the play-offs begin.
“Ronny's injury is coming on rapidly,” he said.
“Initially it was thought maybe get him in the finals, in April. Then it was March.
“But we’re kind of hoping it may be late February because everything is healing so well.”
Regardless of Vargas’s improved prospects, Merrick said Newcastle were hoping to sign an injury-waiver replacement in the January transfer window.
“We’ll have a look and see if a quality player becomes available,” he said. “I think our owner would be open to signing a player at that stage.”
After conceding a 24th-minute goal to Adelaide’s Nikola Mileusnic, Newcastle equalised just before half-time when Ben Kantarovski finished a Wayne Brown cross.
Two minutes after the resumption, Jets winger Andrew Nabbout intercepted a stray back pass and put the visitors in the lead.
“I wouldn't call it a great victory,” Merrick said. “It was a pretty average performance.
“We knew that the Adelaide boys would come at us.
“I mean it's their home ground, good crowd, and two losses they've had previously, so no doubt they were pretty keen to put three points on the board …
“It wasn't a great game of football, but it's probably better winning ugly than losing pretty.”