IT is the Newcastle Jets’ biggest game in a decade and coach Ernie Merrick wants the players to enjoy every second of the build-up.
The Jets will meet one of either Melbourne City, Melbourne Victory or Adelaide United in a grand-final qualifier at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday, April 27.
At stake is a place in the A-League decider, and for the Jets a shot at a first championship since they beat Central Coast Mariners 10 years ago.
More than 4500 Jets members purchased seats for the qualifier on the first day of presale tickets on Monday.
Merrick, who steered Victory to two grand-final wins, and his football staff have been mapping out a plan for the do-or-die battle since the Jets locked in second spot almost a month ago.
“I am very big on planning,” Merrick said.
“It doesn’t guarantee you success, but I try to tick off all the boxes in terms of preparation.
“We are making sure training sessions are short and sharp so physically we peak at the right time on Friday week.
“They have endurance in spades. It will all be short, sharp stuff; low-volume with small, possession games. Recovery is important.
“I learnt a lot about preparation [when working] at the Victorian Institute of Sport where international-level coaches are managing players and teams; the sort of things that occur in finals, what is successful, what works and what doesn’t.”
Merrick has divided the Jets’ preparation into two separate weeks, punctuated by an intraclub trial at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday.
“We are trying to keep the schedule as close to normal as possible,” Merrick said. “We are playing the semi on a Friday so that is why the intraclub game is on a Friday. The eleven v eleven game will be 30-minute halves. We will have a guess at who we are going to be playing in the semi-final and set up the way we will play against them.”
Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Dimi Petratos, Jason Hoffman, Nigel Boogaard and Daniel Georgievski have experienced the cooker-pressure atmosphere of A-League finals, while imports Roy O’Donovan, Ronny Vargas and Pato Rodriguez have played in major matches in Europe and their homeland.
But for many of the Jets, the grand-final qualifier will be the biggest game of their careers to date.
“Players have to enjoy the build-up,” said Merrick, who is in line to be named coach-of-the year for a third time at the A-League awards night in Sydney next Monday.
“They have achieved so much and shouldn’t be concerned or worried.
“Pressure hinders your play.The less pressure on you the better.
“My approach is; get your preparation as best as you can to enjoy every minute of it.”
The Jets’ record-breaking 8-2 win over Central Coast in the final round game provided a timely lift and much-needed momentum heading into the finals.
Merrick made some crucial changes, dropping Riley McGree deeper in midfield, bringing Joe Champness onto the left wing, pushing Jason Hoffman forward and injecting Daniel Georgievski and Johnny Koutroumbis into the backline.
“It was a game we needed to win, we needed to win well and score goals, and get back to the way we were playing,” the coach said. “I think we ticked all those boxes.
“I thought it was a great performance, a terrific result, but there are still things we are continually trying to get better at technically, tactically and physically.”