By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, May 3 : The Newcastle Jets will look to complete a fairytale season when they bid for their second A-League title in the Grand Final against Melbourne Victory on Saturday.
Having finished bottom of the table last season, the Jets’ stunning transformation from whipping boys to winners has captured the imagination of a country usually blinkered by Australian Rules football and rugby league.
“To me, the greatest story in the history of football is the Leicester City story. I see a bit of that in Newcastle,” former Australia and Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston told local media this week.
“It’s a fairytale rags-to-riches story,” he said, comparing it to Leicester City’s shock English Premier League triumph in the 2015-16 season.
Since claiming their maiden title under Gary van Egmond in 2007/08, the A-League’s third season, the team from the port city north of Sydney has skimmed the depths of despair.
Battling bankruptcy, management chaos and a string of ineffectual coaches, the Jets went seven years without reaching the playoffs, reaching a low point in 2015 when owner and fallen coal baron Nathan Tinkler had to hand back the club’s license to the league.
The Jets were then sold in 2016 for a cut-price A$5.5 million ($4.13 million) to China’s Martin Lee, an avid football fan and CEO of a Shenzhen-based optoelectronics company.
The turnaround began shakily under the tycoon, with two coaches fired in his first season in charge.
Scottish nous then combined with the Chinese money to put the Jets back on track, with CEO Lawrie McKinna, who coached the Central Coast Mariners to the championship match in 2005/06, bringing in current boss Ernie Merrick.
Merrick brought home club favourite Joel Griffiths to be the Jets’ operations manager and the pair embarked on a huge recruitment drive that netted Venezuela international Ronald Vargas and impressive Argentine Pato Rodriguez.
“Joel’s definitely got credibility in the game,” McKinna told Reuters after attending the Jets’ training session with hundreds of fans.
“That helps when you’re signing new players.” The Jets could become the country’s first top flight team from any football code in more than 80 years to win the title after finishing bottom the previous season.
Adding spice to Saturday’s decider, Edinburgh-born Merrick claimed the A-League title twice as coach of Victory in 2006/07 and 2008/09. Kevin Muscat, the current Melbourne boss, was his captain.
The pair were once tight but now barely exchange words as opposing coaches.
Runnersup last year, the Victory will bid for a record fourth championship and boast far more big-match experience than their opponents.
But the Jets will be roared on by a sell-out crowd of 30,000 at the Newcastle International Sports Centre and will be sentimental favourites after their stunning revival.
Having already won the hearts of a nation, McKinna hopes the Jets can win contracts from new sponsors after they fell away during the strife of the Tinkler years.
“We still got tarnished with that,” he said. “Even this season, we would speak to potential sponsors and get the custard pie in the face.
“I think with the success of the season, that’s now gone.” ($1 = 1.3303 Australian dollars)