ERNIE Merrick is desperate for the Newcastle Jets to return to the free-flowing football that lit up the A-League last season – their finals hopes could hinge on it.
The Jets sit in seventh place on five points, with a lone win, and miserly return of five goals from six rounds.
This time last season, they had netted 15 goals and accumulated 14 points in the perfect springboard for a finals assault.
Injuries, suspension and an unfavourable draw – four of the opening six rounds have been on the road – have made life difficult for last season’s runners-up.
But with four of the next five games at McDonald Jones Stadium, starting with Brisbane on Sunday, Merrick believes it’s time to strike.
“It is crucial in the next four weeks to start winning games and go on a run,” Merrick said. “We have played six games, lost three, drawn two and won one. Really, that is a bad start. The most successful teams start off well. But, of course, [last season] Melbourne Victory struggled to win in their first six games, finished 23 points behind the leaders and still won the championship. It is really about getting in the six, but we don’t want to be fifth or sixth, we want to be up near third spot. That would be ideal for us.”
After Brisbane, the Jets meet Perth, Central Coast and Adelaide before a second visit by the Roar.
A trip to Gosford, where they won 5-1 and 8-2 last campaign, is the only match away from Turton Road.
“Fortunately we are only one point out of the finals group,” Merrick said. “It is about having belief in your ability. We have to go on a run and prove to our tremendous supporters at home that we can play good, attacking football.
“If we don’t win, it won’t be through a lack of effort, and there was a definite lack of effort and belief in their ability in the last game.”
The Jets fell 3-0 to Melbourne City at AAMI Park last Sunday in a performance Merrick described as insipid.
"There was a lack of urgency defending and an inability to really pressurise the opposition,” the coach said. “We've got to change our application in defence, and we've got to do that now. They are not in control of the outcome of the game, but they are in control of how hard they work, who they close down and whether they keep the ball or not. It happens at some stage throughout the year. We just have to make sure we get over it, and get over it at home in these next two games.”
Although the Jets’ sole win was a scrappy 2-0 result away over Wanderers, Merrick believes they are a far more imposing team at home.
“In the two home games, we were quite outstanding,” he said. “Against Victory we had 22 shots, or something like that, and lost 1-0. In the game against Sydney (1-1) we took over in the second half and got the draw, and we were a wee bit unlucky not to get the win in the end. We are capable of playing well. We have a good squad. It is just a matter of getting them all fit, healthy, on the field and fighting for each other.”
Brisbane sit a point and a place above the Jets and are coming off a controversial 2-1 loss to Adelaide in which Stefan Mauk was sent off and Adam Taggart (groin) and Éric Bautheac (knee) picked up injuries.
“It makes know difference to me who the opposition are,” Merrick said. “The bottom line is, if you are going to win something, you are going to play against the best teams in the finals at the end of the year. It’s best practicing now. The stronger the Roar are, the better for us.”
After the spell of home games, the Jets hit the road again, with five of the next six league fixtures away including back-to-back trips to Melbourne, a clash against Sydney at Kogarah, a journey across the Nullarbor as well as potentially two Asian Champions League qualifiers.
“Whatever happens in January with the seven matches, I’ll worry about later,” Merrick said. “I’m doing my homework on that. But at the moment I am only concerned about the next two games, which are both home games and about us putting on a performance for the fans.”