QUALITY: Dutchman Kew Jaliens, centre, at Jets training at Ray Watt Oval yesterday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers NCH SPORT. Newcastle Jets football training at Ray Watt Oval, Callaghan. Pic shows Kew Jaliens (centre). Pic by Max Mason-Hubers MMH. Monday 7th October 2013. Newcastle
WELCOME back to the A-League after the briefest of interludes. Cue Sinead O’Connor who’d have a field day with something like “It’s been five long months and 15 days . . .”
Fair dinkum, since a ball was last kicked in anger in the A-League, we’ve had three prime ministers, at least three major championships in both tennis and golf, a Royal baby, One Direction mania, and strangest of all, a British champion at Wimbledon.
History has been made, and grown old during the off-season hiatus, yet every football fan that I run into wants to know “how will the Jets go this season?”
Understandable no doubt, and probably an obvious but valid question, but in the interest of public civility I resist the temptation to reply with “how the #@$! would I know?”
In all honesty, does anyone really know what teams are going to produce after six months off?
Some coaches will be more comfortable than others heading into the opening round with what they expect their teams to deliver. Most will be concerned that preparations have been timed to perfection, that players aren’t over-trained or flat, that they aren’t too excitable.
I do accept, however, that making considered, analytical predictions remains part of your columnist’s job requirements, so let’s leap in.
The Jets have a squad that is very capable of finishing in the top four.
“Has that not been the case in the past three seasons, Lowie?” you ask.
I think potentially the Jets could have – and probably should have – finished at least two or three places higher in all recent campaigns, but there is a sense that squad depth has seldom been stronger in recent times.
There is a certain familiarity about the projected nucleus of Gary van Egmond’s starting side.
As the coach himself pointed out, the turnover of players between seasons is significantly less than in previous campaigns.
There is a very justifiable expectation that many of the younger members of the Jets squad will have benefited from their exposure to A-League football last season, and several who also played at international level.
While there is almost certain to be natural improvement in younger players, and cohesion, the Jets faithful would be quick to tell you that there needs to be improvement in two key areas.
The Jets need to score more goals and concede considerably fewer to mount a serious challenge for honours.
That may seem like a massive over-simplification, not unlike suggesting to someone looking to lose weight that less food and more exercise would be vastly effective.
Certainly Newcastle’s two major off-season acquisitions would confirm that strengthening those key areas is seen as paramount to an improved season.
Dutchman Kew Jaliens has been brought in to add experience, organisation and quality to a back four that was far from miserly last season.
The 35 year-old has an impressive CV. Ten appearances for Holland in some major tournaments is testament to his pedigree.
Early reports from some respected judges confirm his quality, and his contribution and fitness may be key to the Jets this season.
At the other end of the pitch, Nathan Burns has been signed to score goals, create goals, and generally provide a constant threat to opposition defences.
Ten years younger than the Dutch defender, the fitness and durability of Burns may also have a huge bearing on Newcastle’s fortunes.
Have no doubt, when injury-free, Burns is very, very sharp. He is clever, can dribble, can pass, and his football intelligence will ensure he links well with Emile Heskey when the big Englishman returns from injury.
At 25, body permitting, Burns should be approaching his prime and could be a real gem of a signing.
I’ve never been one to get too carried away with winning form in pre-season matches, but conversely losing matches in that phase can be a cause for concern, and that has been a pattern for the Jets’ first-round opponents Sydney.
Coach Frank Farina was brought in last season to mount a rear-guard action and has looked to add some quality and experience in Richard Garcia and the returning Nick Carle.
Garcia has been one of the more effective expats to play in the A-League, and his professionalism and versatility are a bonus.
Carle will add composure and direction in possession at the base of Sydney’s midfield.
The energy and defensive prowess of his prospective partner will be important to the shape and balance of the side.
For me, Sydney still need to stabilise an effective back four, they lack a recognised goal scorer, and they will rely heavily once again on the genius of 38 year-old Alessandro Del Piero.
I suspect they will be vulnerable early on in the season, and they can struggle against very mobile sides, and for that reason I believe the Jets will open the season with three points.
Across the league there have been changes – probably fewer than usual in the majority of clubs in terms of player personnel – and two new coaches.
Adelaide have handed the reins to Josep Gombau, who arrives from a background in the Barcelona youth system and brings with him a couple of products of that school, Sergio Cirio and Isaias Sanchez.
Michael Zullo has been added to the squad, but the departure of Dario Vidosic to Europe leaves a big hole.
In short, a test for the incoming coach at a club that endured more than its share of turbulent times last season.
The other newcomer is Ernie Merrick (cue ironic jocular mirth).
The straight-faced Scotsman, who enjoyed such success with Melbourne Victory, faces the task of rejuvenating Wellington Phoenix.
The enigmatic, chunky Costa Rican Carlos Hernandez has signed for the club, giving journos a chance to claim a prize for geographical puns when assessing his fitness.
Let me jump in early and crassly – if the fabulously talented Hernandez “hasn’t swallowed a sheep” he can be a great drawcard and acquisition.
Perth face a tough time, I believe. Liam Miller’s departure for Brisbane leaves a creative hole, and the not unsurprising but nonetheless sad departure of Lubjo Milicevic before a ball has been kicked must have upset plans.
The Roar will be boosted by the signing of Miller, and the return of Socceroo Matt McKay should ensure they control many midfield battles.
Melbourne Heart have cleared the decks of some favourite veterans and brought in the most famous of them all, Harry Kewell. They won’t be short of publicity or headlines.
Cross-town rivals Melbourne Victory have recruited well to cover departures and key needs and loom as title favourites for me.
Last season’s grand finalists, the Mariners and Western Sydney Wanderers, will continue to work extremely hard, keep things fairly simple, and be there at the business end.
Spring is here, the hibernation is over, let battle commence.