The team from Hunter Stadium appeared on course to squeeze into the top six after changing managers mid-way through the campaign, but ultimately fell just short
Of the three clubs to remove their coach in 2013-14 (as opposed to Melbourne Victory and Central Coast, who lost theirs), the Jets' decision to remove Gary van Egmond seemed perhaps the most unreasonable. Heart sacking John Aloisi was a no-brainer after their horror first half of the season. Perth Glory had a mixed record of three wins, three draws and four defeats when Alistair Edwards got the chop, although his dismissal was more to do with personality clashes and the owner siding with senior players over the coach.
Van Egmond had managed five wins, four draws and six defeats when the end came, with the Jets hierarchy citing the urgent need to qualify for the finals as the reason behind his departure. To that end they promoted Clayton Zane, who has earned largely positive reviews, certainly within the media, but hardly bettered his predecessors' return, earning five wins, two draws and five defeats from his 12 matches in charge.
The late capitulation to lose 2-1 away to Glory in Round 25 and the Jets' inability to beat a sub-par Melbourne Victory at home in a 2-2 draw a week later ultimately cost Newcastle that top-six berth they so coveted. Will seventh place be enough to earn Zane the top job on a long-term basis?
Ruben Zadkovich has an excellent, ever-present season for Jets, the only member of the squad to play all 27 of their matches. Going into the final game of the campaign against Adelaide, of the Jets midfielders to have played more than five matches, he topped the stats columns for clearances and percentage of tackles won. Only Josh Brillante and Zenon Caravella passed the ball more accurately and won a higher percentage of duels, and it should be noted that Brillante spent large parts of the season at the back, where shorter, more simple passes are played and contests for possession are loaded in the defender's favour.
Millwall did not pursue the interest they showed in former Derby County player Zadkovich in pre-season, and might not find themselves in the Championship relegation zone with four games remaining if they had moved for the hard-working midfielder. One thing Zadkovich could aim to improve next season is his accuracy in front of goal. Scorer of some spectacular strikes in previous campaigns, his 29 shots attempted without hitting the back of the net was a league worst going into Round 27.
Whichever way you look at it, it's not been a great season for Emile Heskey. While Zane and Van Egmond before him sought to highlight the English veteran's less tangible qualities, the main currency of a striker is goals, especially when they're being paid outside the salary cap. A solitary strike and two assists is all Heskey has to show for his 18 appearances in 2013-14, which is at least the second highest of any Jets forward after Adam Taggart.
While the 36-year-old did lots of good grunt work in terms of winning duels, effecting clearances when defending set-pieces and holding the ball up, his departure, as well as that of Michael Bridges, will give the Jets a welcome opportunity to rethink their attacking structure, which should be built around Adam Taggart - if they can keep hold of the golden boot winner.
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The high-water mark for Newcastle was a thumping 5-0 win over Wellington Phoenix in Round 24, after which they appeared on course to sneak into the finals ahead of Sydney FC. Heskey bagged his solitary goal, Taggart notched a brace and Joel Griffiths and Bridges bagged the others, the latter a stunning back post volley in one of the Englishman's last appearances at Hunter Stadium.
Unfortunately for Zane and his players, that high was followed the next weekend by the lowest low, conceding twice in the final 10 minutes away to fellow strugglers Glory to lose 2-1, a result which effectively cost them a place in the finals. Honourable mentions should go to 3-0 and 3-1 losses away to F3 derby rivals Central Coast Mariners, with goalkeeper Mark Birighitti committing some real howlers in the second of those two painful defeats.
Off the field
Uncertainty about the future of the Jets and rugby league franchise the Newcastle Knights is never far away after a decline in the fortunes of local mining entrepreneur Nathan Tinkler, who owns both clubs. Reports emerged earlier this month that Tinkler is seeking to sell the Jets to an Asian consortium in a bid to put more of his diminished resources into the Knights. The abysmal Hunter Stadium turf has also come in for plenty of flak ahead Newcastle hosting Asian Cup matches in January 2015.
Where to next?
Like Perth Glory, the Jets should be doing their utmost to secure free agent Graham Arnold as their next full-time coach. If the man who led the Mariners to the 2012-13 title turns them down, there must be some hard thinking and effective decisions made about who can get the best of an undeniably talented squad with plenty of youthful promise. Keeping hold of young marksman Taggart is also a priority, while a marquee able to improve on Heskey's on-field performance and match or better his commercial appeal would be handy, but the money required might not be forthcoming from Tinkler.
Took a gamble in axing Van Egmond and it didn't pay off. Plenty of upside and promise to build on, but the powers that be at the Jets need to form a good plan and stick to it, specifically in the form a top-quality coach and shrewd signings.