Wasn’t a bad night, was it? Great crowd, superb atmosphere, city slickers with advantage versus underdog battlers, heroes and villains, and, of course, the right result for the vast majority of very excited fans.
I refrained from using the “fairytale finish” description, because this was a Newcastle team that showed belief, tenacity, creativity and a hugely commendable dose of discipline and grit.
You can tell when a group of ex-players, sitting together outside a corporate box, some of whom haven’t lived here for a couple of decades, join in with the chanting, jumping, jeering and so forth, that this was a special occasion.
Certainly some amber lubricant may have released the inhibitions, but the old boys recognised a performance full of merit, tactical bravery and fearlessness.
Whatever you made of the Roy O’Donovan’s send off, and by the letter of the law it was a red card offence, Jordy Buijs’s theatrical reaction to the contact certainly incensed the crowd.
There were mutterings in my group about refs spoiling the game, an assumption the Jets would withdraw into their shells to combat Sydney’s skill and numerical edge, and the ever-present warning among former players after a big decision to “wait for the square-up”.
Very happily, the game didn’t lapse into an attack versus defence type of drill, and a lot of the reason for that was Ernie Merrick’s refusal to get ultra defensive.
Many coaches would have sacrificed another attacker to get a Ben Kantarovski on and plug up midfield. Merrick chose to leave Andrew Nabbout and Dimi Petratos up front to threaten in transition, not track back too much, and rely on a block of seven to defend.
It worked very well. The back four and midfield defended narrow and compact, confident that Nigel Boogaard and Nikolai Topor-Stanley would deal with the crosses, while restricting and constricting the passing lanes that Sydney’s creative players normally use so well.
By insisting Sydney go around rather than through them, the Jets allowed and encouraged Sydney’s fullbacks to get forward. They then used the space they vacated to get Nabbout and Petratos into the game as excellent outlets.
Jets fullbacks Jason Hoffman and Daniel Georgievski stayed at home more than normal, for much of the game, though not to the extent of the old “don’t go over halfway” edict often handed out to the under 10s.
Late in the game, as the Jets sought to extend their lead, rather than protect it, Georgievski was in the opposition penalty box on the end of excellent transition sequences. Merrick was clapping, but having kittens at the same time.
Which leads me to point three. Was the penalty a square-up? If I pull on my neutral hat, I think it was. At best it was very soft. Nowhere near as bad as the penalty for handball against Topor-Stanley at the Wanderers. But, and I will whisper this, it was with far less contact than Topor-Stanley’s nudge on Avraam Papadopoulos in the 90th minute at Brisbane.
Sydney captain Alex Brosque would have recognised the atmosphere after the send-off and quietly mentioned to referee Chris Beath that it wasn’t his job to square the ledger. He was apoplectic after the penalty call, ended up in the book, and left nothing to the imagination in the post-match comments. I might’ve done the same.
However, Sydney drew level shortly after the break, perhaps with a hint of offside about the goal, and had their opportunity from that moment on to take three points. But the Jets refused to yield and in fact had the better of the remaining chances.
Merrick brought on Kantarovski at halftime to provide fresh legs and defensive starch in midfield, and his introduction of young Joey Champness for the excellent Nabbout came at just the right time to maintain the Jets’ attacking threat. Everyone needs to have a good night in those sort of circumstances and Merrick certainly joined the party.
The victory will be great for morale, for belief. Beating Sydney for the first time in five seasons could hardly have come at a better time.
Doing it with 10 men for about 80 minutes is extremely meritorious, but not recommended as a template to plan from. However, it also means that any tactical nuances Merrick may have devised to upset Sydney stay firmly in the back pocket. The shape of the next contest (hopefully this season) will likely be very different.
It’s now about 99 per cent confirmed that Sydney and Newcastle will have the first week of the finals off then host qualifying play-offs. That advantage, and the clear margin to third and fourth, does not mean grand final qualification for either is assured. If Saturday’s match does nothing else, it should be a reminder that no one is unbeatable in one-off games.
Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory are in the box seat to finish third and fourth, and despite having yo-yo seasons, they have players who can light up a football pitch and cause problems for anyone.
That said, the two combatants at McDonald Jones Stadium last Saturday are one strong home performance on the last weekend in April away from a grand final. The rest of the regular season for them is about fitness, freshness, momentum and peaking at the right time. The hard work is done.
The Jets’ stellar performance, though, has not convinced the TAB of their title credentials. Now $5.50, in from $6, it’s almost like the odds makers are daring the Newcastle faithful to have a wager on their team to win the championship.
Sydney will recover from their second loss of the season, and Milos Ninkovic’s hamstring strain.
The Jets may have a few more worries. Is Boogaard’s knee injury just a minor bit of jarring? How will they handle O’Donovan’s two-game suspension? And the biggest question of all, will they cope without Nabbout? Ten goals and eight assist are not easy to replace.
After the emotional high of last Saturday, and given the energy the performance required, a week off might be a blessing and definitely something a gallant group deserves.