ERNIE Merrick has been involved in bigger wins – his Melbourne Victory side won a grand final 6-0 in 2007 – but the ever-measured Scotsman admits there is “something a little special” about the Newcastle Jets.
Success-starved football fans in the Hunter couldn’t agree more.
A 10-man Jets outfit, spurred on by a raucous home crowd of 18,156, outgunned Sydney FC 2-1 on Saturday in what will go down as one of the club’s most famous wins – a win that guaranteed a home semi-final and delivered a psychological hammer to the seemingly imperious armor of the Sky Blues.
“It was pretty special wasn’t it,” Merrick said, smiling. “Over 18,000 people, very loud, very parochial, most of them on our side, it created a great atmosphere. It was a terrific night for Newcastle football. I would say the boys are pretty confident that they can match it with anyone now. Sydney, to their credit, have had a fantastic year, it was only their second defeat.”
Asked if it was one of his best wins, Merrick said: “Definitely at this club. I won a grand final 6-0 once which takes a bit of beating. We haven’t won anything yet but that is a special night against a very good team with 10 men. Again the boys fought right to the end, trying to score another goal. I was telling them to get back but they kept getting forward.”
Under Merrick, the Jets have become the league entertainers. Again they scored two goals, including a rasping show-stopper by Andrew Nabbout.
But they also showed they have the mettle to complete the transformation from wooden spooners to champions.
Forced to play nearly 80 minutes with 10 men after the dismissal of Roy O’Donovan, every player, to a man, dug in. They closed down, threw their bodies at everything and drew on every last ounce of energy.
Nigel Boogaard and Nikolai Topor Stanley were immense. They just shaded Daniel Georgievski, Steve Ugarkovic and Riley McGree in the effort stakes. It seems almost unfair to leave any players out in terms of praise.
“We have players who are committed. They stay in the game, stay involved and don’t go hiding when it gets tough,” Merrick said. “It was an exceptional defensive performance. We didn’t give them many clear-cut shots. Most of their attacks were crosses. We had a game plan. It worked really well. If we play Sydney again it will probably be in the finals. I am looking forward to that, but I’m not going to give them any hints or any other team any hints.”
Asked if he expected the Jets to be in this position – secure in second and the biggest threat to Sydney – five games out from the finals, Merrick said: “Having coached against Newcastle many times since 2005, I knew the potential here, the history of football, the tremendous support. “I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Normally in your first year, you try and get in the finals and do something, but this team is a bit special.”
It wasn’t purely the performance, as good as it was, that made Saturday memorable.
A spine-tingling flyover by three F18 Hornets set the tone. It was the cue for the home faithful to support the Jets with fervor missing since the club’s championship season a decade ago.
“The crowd played a major part,” Merrick said. “They never stopped chanting and definitely got us over the line. When it came to six minutes of stoppage time, I’m glad they were there. That was tough.”
Former Newcastle Breaker turned Fox Sports expert Andy Harper best summed up the herculean effort.
“This is what Newcastle sport is all about. This is what Newcastle football has been about for 130 years,” Harper proclaimed at fulltime. “Ernie Merrick has walked into town and coalesced all the great history, all the great steel in Newcastle sport and we’re seeing it here today. t’s been an incredible performance against the best team arguably the competition has ever seen who’ve had a man advantage and they’re edging close to the line. It will be a historic night … Newcastle have made their statement here.”
The way it is shaping, the next time the Jets and and Sydney meet will be in the grand final.
They would enter that contest with the ledger square – a win each and a draw.
But Sydney coach Graham Arnold remains supremely confident.
“The biggest challenge is ourselves, and making sure the attitude is spot on,” he said. “If that is the case, then there is no issues.”