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Central Coast thrashing shows Merrick finally has the Newcastle Jets ticking

12:45 GMT+3 09/10/2017
Newcastle Jets
The Jets were once the laughing stock of the league but have put together a team capable of matching the best under the Scotsman

"The best road in Newcastle is the one out of it", it said. So, on they went, out the back door, first onto Newcastle Link Road then onto the F3 freeway en-route to Gosford some 85 kilometres away. It’s a route that has become awfully familiar; they had made the trip down 22 times previously, in fact, half of which had ended in disappointment. The last time they did, they cemented their spot as the cellar-dwellers as the Central Coast Mariners comfortably won 2-0.

This time, though, it is a new season, a fresh beginning with a new coach, bringing with him a new philosophy and a host of new signings, including one from their eternal rivals. Things would be different, so they hoped.

But within five minutes, the Jets found themselves behind, ironically, though unsurprisingly, through the Mariners' own off-season signing from Las Palmas with Asdrobal somehow finding space amongst eight defenders to place the ball into the back of the net.

Any fears that they may have had of yet another shaky performance were dismissed emphatically, though, as a clinical display of attacking football by Ernie Merrick’s men saw the Hunter side effectively putting the game to bed with a 3-1 lead at half-time. By the final whistle, the scoreline read 5-1.

"I don’t think we played badly tonight," Mariners coach Paul Okon said. "I think in certain key moments of the game, we didn’t handle it well and unfortunately, it resulted in goals against us. Probably the third goal before half-time was the killer, mentally that’s tough."

He has a point too; the Central Coast side weren’t bad - though they also weren’t great either – they were simply outclassed by an opponent who were better and more disciplined than their rivals throughout.

"It was an outstanding performance," Merrick said. There was no Daniel Mullen – who left at the end of last season –  but there was Nikolai Topor-Stanley, who organised the defence with supreme efficiency. There was Benjamin Kantarovski and Ronald Vargas, both of whom were at the heart of their midfield. There was last season’s club top-scorer Andrew Nabbout, who laid off two assists as well – he has now been involved six of the Jets' previous 10 goals from open play.

Then there was Roy O’Donovan, the Mariners' best last season, whose reputation in the Central Coast had been trashed, and whose every touch was whistled. But that didn’t faze him in the slightest. Although his penalty was contentious, the other two goals were typical of an in-form striker. He was everywhere, and if he carries on like this, he could be everything.

"Roy is a veteran of intense football where there is pressure on and he loves it,” Merrick said. Meanwhile, Okon conceded: "We know Roy can score goals, he scored a number of goals for this football club. We never planned for Roy to score a hat-trick in the first half, he took his goals well and one was a pen."

But even if they had planned for O’Donovan to dispatch of his former side with such ease, there still would not have been any sort of guarantee they could’ve prevented it. His performance, alongside the rest, wasn’t simply a glimpse of what’s to come, it was a demonstration of how far they’ve come.

"To come back from 1-0 down was a sign of the character of the team," the Scot continued. At least it is a team - they certainly play like one - and after seven years in the abyss, that’s progress for you.

But it isn’t just any team. The club have found the right manager – not just a caretaker – in whom they have complete trust. Wholesale changes have been made with 12 players released and nine experienced personnel acquired. Perhaps the most telling part was their pursuit of Patito Rodriguez, Neymar’s former Santos pal, who had agreed on a deal only for the two-time A-League winner to pull the plug on it. It might look ludicrous on face value, but this is Ernie’s team and he makes the decisions. Besides, why bother with wasting money on a marquee contract when you already have the players you need?

And then there’s the system. The Scottish tactician prefers possession-based football with players creating goalscoring opportunities through efficient rotations of the ball and astute player movements off it. But on Saturday, they showed a more versatile side to their play as they stretched the Mariners defence on the break, isolating Antony Golec and Alan Baro with long diagonal balls. It was a tactic which they had practiced throughout the week, and it worked to perfection.

"On reflection of the game, I don’t think a 5-1 is really a fair reflection of the performance," Merrick said. It’s a telling quote too. It’s just the start, of course, and a good start as well. But with the nightmare that was Wellington Phoenix still fresh in his memory, he knows there’s much more to do.

"We’re not going to get carried away with it. It’s a good start, a good performance."

Talking points from Round One:

  • It was perhaps fitting that it was Bruce Kamau who starred as Warren Joyce claimed in a debut victory in charge of Melbourne City. The former Manchester United reserve team boss oversaw the developments of Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard to name a few. And he could be the man that kick starts a bright future for his 22-year-old attacker.
  • Sydney FC may have conquered all before them last season, but their performance against a depleted Melbourne Victory was a shadow of their best. The Sky Blues were largely under the pump in the opening 45 minutes, and were perhaps fortunate to grab the three-points courtesy of a Thomas Deng own-goal.
  • Adelaide’s Marco Kurz claimed that his side will eventually be fit enough to train four times a day. They will have a long way to go before reaching that target as they ran out of steam in their 1-1 draw against Wellington Phoenix.
  • Western Sydney Wanderers’ may be without Tony Popovic, but they still have their Spanish trio of Raul Llorente, Alvaro Cejudo and Oriol Riera. The left-back showcased his qualities in defence whilst the other two combined well to open the scoring towards the back-end of the first half.