DAVID LOWE: The more things change ...

I LOOK at the date at the top of my page, 1/1/13, and think cheekily to myself, maybe that’s the best way to describe rugby union tactics in the modern era, then remind myself it’s a date that should signify a fresh start, new hope, and change for the better.

‘‘Stick to your own code Lowey and try to stay positive’’, I remind myself. I’ve got to tell you that is easier said than done.

I have, like most old men, a well-worn repertoire of phrases I like to trot out when the occasion warrants, and one of my favourites – ‘‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’’ –  has appeared on more than the odd occasion in this column. It’s time to bring it out again.

What is so different about football, and its prospects in Newcastle on the first day of 2013 compared to, say, two years ago, or perhaps even five or 10?

Despite the assurances emanating from the Hunter Sports Group, there are still concerns – unfounded some will undoubtedly say – about the future of the club.

For as long as I can remember there have been question marks over the sustainability and viability of Newcastle’s various footballing flagships. So no real change there.

What has improved is the affordability of attendance, the marketing, and the information available to Jets fans, and HSG is to be congratulated for that.

Fortunes have tended to fluctuate on the pitch, as will happen over time. The Jets and Newcastle teams before them have had brief flashes of success and extensive periods of mid-table competitiveness, coupled with occasional mediocrity.

‘‘That’s pretty normal, Lowey,’’ I can hear you say, and I would tend to agree. It’s normal if you are happy to have the once-in-10-year highlight and turn up every other week just happy there is a game on and a team to support.

A colleague of mine, slightly older and wiser, reminds me that 35years ago Alan Vest, inaugural coach of Newcastle ‘‘KB’’ United, arrived in town and, to much teeth gnashing from the locals, announced that he would have to import players because very few local footballers were up to the level required.

The quota of local players in the starting side picked up when Col Curran and Joe Senkalski returned from Sydney, and then the golden crop from Booragul, the Tredennicks, Brett Cowburn and Malcolm McClelland boosted numbers. But my friend points out that three decades plus later, we still rely on imports to fill the majority of starting places in the Jets first XI.

I joke, along with many pundits, that it’s hard to pin down Jets coach Gary van Egmond’s preferred starting XI, but on a good day you could say that Josh Mitchell, Jobe Wheelhouse, and maybe James Virgili are fairly regular starters in the current team. Two or three out of XI. Hmmm, it’s been worse.

Five years ago in a title-winning team, Stu Musialik was probably the only genuine local starter. You could make a claim for James Holland, who came into the side late, and a flimsy case for Jade North, from Taree via Queensland. Wheelhouse was also a squad member.

The Ian Crook-coached side, with van Egmond as his assistant, that went close to a grand final in the early 2000s had Andy Roberts and current Jets chief executive officer Robbie Middleby as their only regular local starters.

So if the often maligned Vest was in fact correct, and a host of coaches since seem to have concurred, what have we done to change things?

If you answered bugger all, go to the top of the class.

Apart from the occasional foray into the Sydney competitions, our best young footballers have, by and large, remained in relatively insular competitions to the detriment, in my opinion, of their development.

Human nature dictates that you will rise only to the level that you need to in order to succeed. How much does, say, the best 13-year-old player need to improve to be the best 16-year-old in the exact same pool of kids?

Another friend with a wise head poses this question: ‘‘Do you think if Perth or Brisbane had a city the size of Sydney two hours down the road, they wouldn’t take their kids down to play against that vast reservoir of talent?’’

So  we waited with hopes high  that a funded Jets academy might provide an answer, a bridge for our youth to find a way to make it though to the A-League.

Alas, thus far we have received a watered down, politically considered, user-pays model that very much maintains the status quo. The NNSW federation, it seems, will continue to oversee youth development, although the Jets have put their name and badge on it.

The worst-kept secret in local football circles is that van Egmond and the federation’s decision makers had different views on who should head the programs, and  it looks like the federation holds sway.

Imagine the federation and the head of the city’s national football representative not seeing eye to eye. Another first! 

On the pitch, nothing much changed either. The Jets in their quest to ‘‘control’’ matches, continue to leave themselves vulnerable at the back, regardless of different personnel combinations, and continue to leak goals.

Their match this afternoon against a hurting Melbourne Heart is a danger game. The Heart’s football content belies their league position, they have four key players returning fresh and rested, and will be desperate for a win.

Yes, the Jets were brave against the Victory, a little naive as well in my eyes, but at what physical cost? 

They courageously clawed their way back into the contest against Melbourne Victory on Friday by expending a lot of energy to press their opponents high in the second half.

If there are any residual physical effects from that exertion, an early 4pm kick-off on a predicted hot Melbourne afternoon ensures they will be thoroughly tested by a hungry, mobile Heart side.

I have a nagging doubt about the Jets in daytime conditions. They are a ‘‘night’’ side by my reckoning, but they need a win badly here ahead of two tough home games against Adelaide and Brisbane.

Now then, chest cleared, happy New Year, and enjoy your football.


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