‘‘Would it have worked? Who knows. It’s rustic, it’s old school, it’s route one football. Who cares for five or 10 minutes, if the ball ends up in the onion bag?’’
I have a confession to make. I really thought that the Wellington Phoenix could win at Hunter Stadium on Sunday, but I conservatively tipped the Jets, because I didn’t want to fall further behind in the Herald’s competition.
What was the thinking behind that? Well, dear reader, history first and foremost. Just as the Jets always seem to do well against Melbourne Victory, so the Phoenix seem to do against the Jets.
I can hear the naysayers mumbling about every game being a new chapter, starting at zero, with different players unaffected by history and so on...but why does it seem to repeat itself?
It comes down to the characteristics of the sides, and the style of game that best suits your team.
I have a second confession to make. I didn’t see the game live. I was a participant on a coaching course in sleepy Bulahdelah, but I was keen to see on replay if it really was the Jets ‘‘worst performance of the season’’.
If I cast my mind back to the Adelaide game in round one, I think the Jets where similarly listless and devoid of creativity.
In fact the Adelaide fixture may have been a touch more concerning at the time, because the Reds not only countered well, but dissected the left hand side of the Jets defence with some precision.
The other reason the Phoenix always pose a problem for the Jets is mentality.
Not mental strength, although they have healthy doses of that – but an acceptance that they are going to have less of the ball, that they are going to have to defend for long periods, and a faith that, if they do that well enough, their creative players will do enough with limited opportunities in the front third to get a result. Call that basic. Call it old fashioned.
Call it what you like – teams around the world have adopted that strategy, particularly away from home, for a hundred years.
It’s not overly bold or adventurous, but in a results-driven business, its ultimately pragmatic.
A quick look at Newcastle’s four home games this season reveals that each opposing coach has come to town happy to sit deep, allow the Jets comfortable possession at the back, lure the Jets defensive line forward, and sting on the counter attack.
Adelaide did it, the Mariners did it to an extent, but had as much of the game as the Jets and lost. Melbourne Victory did it and might have been three up at half-time, and Wellington, as expected, did it on Sunday.
The Jets’ two best ‘‘footballing’’ performances of the season came in the first half against Sydney FC, and for close to 90 minutes in the unfortunate loss to Perth Glory.
Perth at home are always aggressive, looking to attack and dictate, and although the form against Sydney has a big asterisk against it, the Jets were fluent against a team that almost had a duty to attack in Alessandro Del Piero’s home debut.
Does that mean that the Jets’ best form this season is likely to be away from home? I hope not, for the sake of the home supporters.
But to me it seems that opposing coaches have decided on a blueprint for stifling the Jets at Hunter Stadium.
It’s a back-handed compliment for the Jets’ mobility and possession game, in a way, and certainly not the first team it’s happened to.
I can clearly remember a season with a very strong title-winning Marconi side in the NSL, where we struggled to break down cautious visiting teams at home, but won I think eight, and drew two of 11 away games.
On Sunday, Wellington sat deep, nullified Newcastle’s pace in wide areas by denying space in behind, and said to the Jets, ‘Play through us if you are good enough’.
The Jets weren’t.
Central defenders Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund battled manfully to restrict Emile Heskey’s opportunities, and a hard-working midfield erected a protective wall in front of the back four.
I’m not so sure about Jets coach Gary van Egmond’s claim that his team played without courage. I didn’t see any fear, just a side struggling to impose their game plan on a resilient opposition.
What they seemed to lack was a plan B, although listening to the post-match comments, it may have been that plan B was actually to implement plan A more effectively.
That is a noble philosophy – stick to your principles at all times, given spectacular publicity by Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar in two championship seasons.
But it’s mythical to an extent, given that their two grand final wins swung on a save that Mariner’s Matt Ryan normally would have made, a 93rd-minute header from a corner, and last season from a speculative, albeit quality, cross which found Besart Berisha’s head.
Point being – you don’t get style points in the real football world.
The Jets have used Heskey well this season.
Would it have been a crime against football to post him at the top of the box and play some second-ball football from his impressive aerial capability even for ten minutes, just to change the pattern of the game, and ask some different questions?
Would it have worked? Who knows. It’s rustic, it’s old school, it’s route one football.
Who cares for five or 10 minutes, if the ball ends up in the onion bag?
A strident van Egmond said ‘‘Heads would roll’’, and added we’ve been going through this with some of the players for a good 15, 16 months who have been here last year, so if they’re not going to get it, we need to change’’.
Fifty or sixty miles down the F3, good friend Graham Arnold – his Mariners side just two points ahead of the Jets on the league ladder – has lightened the training load on veteran striker Daniel McBreen to dazzling effect, and fielded the same starting 11 for five consecutive matches.
Seems there are many ways to make things work.