“It was pretty special today, wasn’t it?” – Beaming Ernie Merrick on...

“It was pretty special today, wasn’t it?” – Beaming Ernie Merrick on cloud nine


It seems uncanny that just over a decade ago – some two weeks more, in fact – Newcastle Jets enjoyed their finest hour as a football club. 

They defeated F3 rivals Central Coast Mariners in the 2007-08 A-League grand final to claim their first championship and so far only with a 1-0 win at Allianz Stadium on 24 February.

Fast forward 10 mostly miserable years and the Jets are finally back soaring, led by Scottish tactician Ernie Merrick.

Even before their remarkable 2-1 win with 10 men over Graham Arnold’s menacing Sydney FC, thanks to goals from Dimi Petratos and Andrew Nabbout, we knew the Jets were the real deal.

But Saturday’s defeat of the Sky Blues marked just how far the Jets have come not only as a team, but as a football club.

More than 18,000 people turned out at McDonald Jones Stadium to witness Newcastle’s biggest statement of intent yet, an incredible achievement when considering Roy O’Donovan’s controversial dismissal in the 13th minute.

In the early days of the A-League, and very much the glory days of the Jets, seeing Hunter Stadium packed to the brim was a familiar sight.

As we know though, internal troubles crept in, the team began to struggle on the field and the crowds evaporated.

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So to see the venue again pumping at the champions’ visit was one that warmed the heart of A-League fans, on a weekend that has been overwhelmingly positive for the wider competition.

“It was pretty special today, wasn’t it?” the normally straight-faced – but this time, delighted – Merrick said of the game.

“It was a terrific night for Newcastle football.”

Wooden spooners under Mark Jones last year, A-League veteran Merrick’s role in the Jets’ transformation speaks for itself.

His deep squad is playing an attractive brand of attacking football, in which one man will step up if another is down.

It has proven a shrewd appointment by the Jets hierarchy, including owner Martin Lee and CEO Lawrie McKinna.

Further reflecting on the “special” day, Merrick was taken aback by just how quickly the town had warmed to his Jets.

“Having played against Newcastle many times since 2005, I knew the potential here, the history of football, the tremendous support,” Merrick said.

“I’ve known in the past their ability to pull in big crowds, it was great to see it and to deliver.

“But I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.

“Normally in your first year, you try and get in the finals and do something.

“But this team’s a bit special.”

Newcastle are still an outside chance at best to usurp Sydney and claim the premiership, but their standing as championship challengers took another major boost with their win.

And it only looks set to get better from here with marquee man Ronny Vargas’ return from long-term injury imminent, as well as Pato Rodriguez.

“I’m not sure that will happen, but we’ve got Ronny Vargas and Pato Rodriguez, who will be in the squad for the next game,” Merrick revealed.

“One of them certainly could have been in it for this one.

“We took a risk and the risk paid off in that we didn’t use them.”

However, star man Nabbout, whose confident long-range effort just four minutes after Bobo’s equalise had the Hunter rocking, could be set for a shock exit.

The Daily Telegraph reported during the week that the winger is set for a lucrative move to Japan, where the transfer window is still open, despite signing a two-year contract extension with the Jets earlier in the campaign.

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Nabbout’s potential departure would deal a huge blow to the Jets’ ambitions having registered 10 goals and seven assists this season.

Merrick hinted that he would not stand in the player’s way should he wish to move on.

“There’s a window which isn’t very long, whereby they can sign players … if he happens to go in that window, we would wish him all the best,” he added.

“He’s been a great servant to this club. He’s delivered, he delivered last year as well.

“If it’s an opportunity for him to go to a bigger team in another country, we would certainly wish him all the best.

“We feel we can cover that spot. He’s been terrific to work with, and I feel we’ve done a lot for Andrew as well.”

Arnold said the sending off of Nabbout’s strike partner O’Donovan had a detrimental impact on his team.

“When something like that happens, it becomes about attitude and our attitude has been fantastic for a few years now,” he said.

“It was a flat performance … we’ll go and have a look at what we did during the week to learn again.”

Sydney have next week off in the A-League, which sees another split round to accomodate for the Asian Champions League.

There, Sydney face J-League heavyweights Kashima Antlers, in need of a win to boost their hopes of progressing out of Group H in the continental tournament.

Arnold warned his players were already eager to avenge their defeat.

“I think it will fix our attitude; the boys are hurting in the dressing room,” he added.

“I expect a reaction now.”

Sydney’s next A-League match is a home meeting with Brisbane Roar, while the Jets fly to New Zealand to face struggling Wellington Phoenix.

If results go Newcastle’s way, then the 10-year anniversary of their greatest ever hour could be toppled.