ERNIE Merrick happily admits that Joey Champness has delivered more than the coach expected in his maiden season at the Newcastle Jets.
The 20-year-old has scored four goals, including a couple of game-changers, in 20 appearances on the left wing and is a finalist for the A-League young-player-of-the-year award.
Now, the rookie is set to lead the Jets attack.
The departure of Andrew Nabbout last week to Japanese giants Uruwa Red Diamonds, combined with a two-game suspension to Roy O’Donovan has left a void.
Enter Champness. Merrick hinted when confirming Nabbout’s exit that Champness was “due a start”.
The silky-skilled forward trained in the No.9 role on Monday and appears set to start there against Wellington Phoenix at QBE Stadium in Auckland on Saturday.
Nabbout, who moved to the point to cover for Roy O’Donovan during an eight-game injury layoff, and the Irish striker have contributed 17 of the Jets’ club record 46-goal haul.
They won’t be easy shoes to fill but defender Daniel Georgievski is confident Champness – and anyone else called upon – will more than do the job.
“Andrew was playing up front when Roy was out for a long time and he picked it up well,” Georgievski said. “With Joey, he is good player and has definitely shined this season. Where ever he plays and whoever is up front, we will continue supplying the same service and everyone will be up for it.”
Champness is one of three likely changes from the drama-charged 2-1 win over leaders Sydney FC.
Argentinian winger Pato Rodriguez is poised to make an early return from a calf issue on the left wing.
In a further boost, marquee midfielder Ronny Vargas is in line for a bench spot, his first appearance on the teamsheet since breaking his left ankle against Brisbane in October.
“Andrew is a big part of where we are right now,” Georgievski said. “He was my roommate, my good friend. We wish him well but at the same time, the positive is we've got Ronny back training with us full-time, Pato's back, so with a negative we have two positives. I think that's quite good.”
The other change is at the back where Lachly Jackson is set to replace skipper Nigel Boogaard (fractured leg) alongside Nikolai Topor-Stanley. It will be Jackson’s third start for the campaign.
“Whenever someone has come in who doesn’t usually play, they have had an amazing game or couple of games,” Georgievski said. “It is a big loss, the players who are out from the starting XI, but the boys coming in will definitely do the job”
Wellington sit in last spot on 17 points, sacked their coach a fortnight ago, and are coming off a 4-1 loss to Western Sydney.