Newcastle Jets 2018/19 preview: Can Ernie Merrick's men keep flying high?

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They fell painfully short last season and the Jets will be out to fly even higher this season, but must be careful of crashing

In an otherwise predictable and at times troubled A-League campaign, Newcastle Jets were an undoubted highlight last season as they defied the odds and turned their fortunes around to finish second.

A dramatic finals series that saw Riley McGree put the Jets in the limelight with a stunning scorpion goal would end in grand-final heartbreak as Melbourne Victory beat them 1-0 in controversial fashion.

Though walking away with no silverware, the club could walk away from the season with their heads held high and will be desperate to back it up.

Newcastle have however made a habit of inconsistency over their history and must be wary of slipping back into old habits.

Has Ernie Merrick done enough over the off-season? 

Ernie Merrick Newcastle Jets

For a few months, Matthew Ridenton was the sole addition Newcastle were willing to make to a squad that had lost a number of a key players.

With star recruit Pato Rodriguez moving on, McGree opting for a loan move to Melbourne City and first-choice keeper Jack Duncan departing for the Middle East, the Jets were in need of some reinforcements.

Add to that list Roy O'Donovan, who has had a ten-game ban upheld and Merrick clearly had some holes to fill over the off-season.

While taking their time, the Jets have eventually brought in Jair Eduardo Britto da Silva, Mitch Austin and Kaine Sheppard to add some fire power in the final third.

Though all three have shown glimpses of potential, neither are certainties to perform consistently for the Jets. 

Brazilian attacker Jair failed to score during his most recent stint in China, Austin is back in the A-League after a long injury lay-off and Sheppard is attempting to make the step up from the NPL.

All three are to some extent a gamble and Merrick will be hoping he doesn't walk away from the casino empty handed.

In his back pocket however are a number of players that can be banked on to deliver for the Jets. From fit again marquee Ronald Vargas and Socceroos winger Dimitri Petratos, to a rejuvenated Jason Hoffman and technically superb Steven Ugarkovic - Newcastle's squad remains one of the most well-rounded in the competition. 

Having only just broken their finals drought, the Jets will be desperate to secure another top-six finish with former striker Michael Bridges stressing consistency is key for the club. 

"Sydney FC and Victory have always in history been able to back it up and do well the following year, the Jets haven’t done that in so long - I’m just hoping it’s not a one off," Bridges told Goal.

Where will the goals come from? 

Newcastle Jets

With O'Donovan sidelined, the Jets will be hoping Jair can hit the ground running in the A-League after he failed to score across 13 appearances for Chinese club ​Yanbian Funde. 

Prior to that, the 30-year-old did score 26 goals across two seasons in the K-League for ​Jeonnam Dragons to prove he is capable of delivering in the final third.

Merrick hinting that Jair could provide more than just goals for the Jets.

"He's a goal scorer with that right foot or he can cross with that left foot, he's got two good feet on him," Merrick said. 

After scoring the second most goals last season, Newcastle made a habit of sharing the scoring burden with 13 different players getting on the score sheet.

Only Petratos and Andrew Nabbout in fact managed to hit double digits with the Jets set to bank on a number of different scorers once again. 

Jason Hoffman was a revelation last season going forward as he scored six times to tap into his attacking roots with Merrick revealing the defender is set to play higher up the pitch this season. 

"Jason Hoffman has loved the switch from right back to central striker which is a fair move - I think his next move is goalkeeper," he joked. 

"He's scoring goals for fun. I've found every time I put him a little further forward he does a good job and gets into goal scoring positions.

"With Roy being out we've put him central because Jair is more a left-sided attacker. We've got two options now, but those two are vying for that central role."

Off-field stability the perfect runway for success

Steven Ugarkovic Newcastle Jets

It has been a tough few years in the Hunter for Newcastle fans with the club failing to make finals for seven straight seasons prior to Merrick's arrival.

While the veteran coach has certainly helped turn things around on the pitch, off it, the club has been bolstered by some much needed financial certainty and a few of the best football brains in the business.

New Jets chairman Martin Lee has proven wise with the cheque book, spending when needed but not over playing his hand and putting the tumultuous Tinkler era firmly in the rearview.

"Off the field they’ve got a bit of stability there in the ownership," Bridges said.

"The owner gives a lot of faith in them and they haven’t let them down."

Behind the scenes, football operations manager Joel Griffiths and CEO Lawrie McKinna have been able to make the most of their round ball experience to build a more sustainable club.

On the pitch, the club have also been bolstered by some genuine leaders in the form of Nigel Boogaard and Nikolai Topor-Stanley, who stepped up last season when others in the past had shied away. 

After starting the A-League era on a high, the Jets have since crashed and burned one too many times with the memory of two wooden spoons still fresh.

Unlike in years gone by however, Newcastle have benefited from a drama-free pre-season and with things running smoothly behind the scenes, the team won't have off-field distractions to blame should they fail to fly. 

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Predicted finish: 7th

Star player: Ronald Vargas

Breakout player: Matthew Ridenton

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