JOBE Wheelhouse has learnt to take nothing for granted.
On Saturday, he will become the Jets’ first home-grown captain when they kick off the A-League season against the Melbourne Heart at Ausgrid Stadium.
It will be a proud moment for a proud Novocastrian.
Wheelhouse may lack the pedigree of some of his predecessors – Ned Zelic and Paul Okon skippered the Socceroos before wearing the armband for the Jets – but not passion or perseverance.
‘‘It was something I dreamed about as a kid; captaining your home team,’’ Wheelhouse said.
‘‘I’m sure there will be a few nerves on Saturday, but good nerves.’’
Former Jets championship-winning coach Gary van Egmond has watched Wheelhouse develop from a prodigiously talented youngster plucked from the Australian Institute of Sport to make his national soccer league debut at 17 into the ‘‘ideal’’ player to lead the club.
‘‘He has a huge passion for Newcastle, and I think that is really important,’’ van Egmond said.
‘‘He was born and bred here and has a lot of passion for the area, which I think he will instil in all the players.
‘‘He would be the first to admit he has matured a lot over the past 18months and is now at an age where he needs to step up.’’
You forget sometimes that Wheelhouse is only 26.
He made his debut for Newcastle United against Wollongong Wolves in the old NSL in 2003, when van Egmond was Newcastle’s assistant coach to Ian Crook.
‘‘He was a natural and very comfortable in that environment,’’ van Egmond said.
‘‘He was just a magnificent footballer. One day we did a drill and he scored four out of five goals. Noone else was near that.
‘‘Technically he was very strong, one-touch finish, shooting from distance, setting goals up – he could do it all.
‘‘His biggest issue has been his body and being able to sustain the rigours of being a full-time professional.’’
Since his debut, Wheelhouse has made about 100 appearances for his home town and would have easily doubled that amount if not for injury.
At first it was his ankles, which have been operated on five times, causing him to miss nearly two full seasons.
Then came problems with his groin and knee.
‘‘At times you question whether you are cut out for professional sport, but what more would you want than get to get paid for doing what you love,’’ Wheelhouse said.
After bursting onto the NSL scene – he scored nine goals in 28 games – Wheelhouse all but disappeared off the radar.
He played 23 games in the first three editions of the A-League.
He was on the bench for the final round of the 2007-08 regular season but did not play any part in the final series, which culminated in the Jets’ 1-0 win over Central Coast.
James Holland had cemented a place in the starting line-up and the late arrival of Korean Song Jin-hyung had bumped Wheelhouse down the pecking order.
‘‘I’d be lying if I said missing the grand final didn’t hurt, but that has well and truly passed,’’ Wheelhouse said.
If there was a line in the sand that moment was it.
In the three seasons since, Wheelhouse has played 16, 18 and 18 games respectively.
Injuries have remained a bugbear, but he has been able to work through them and take his game to a new level.
‘‘Hopefully I have turned the corner and the injuries are behind me,’’ Wheelhouse said.
‘‘I’m sick of using that as an excuse, to be honest.’’
A heart-to-heart with present coach Branko Culina – one of several ‘‘chats’’ he has had with coaches – at the start of the 2009-10 season was the catalyst for a ground-breaking season.
The Jets finished fourth and Wheelhouse had a contender for goal of the year – a stunning first-time strike from 25metres against the Gold Coast at EnergyAustralia Stadium in round 11.
‘‘I had known of Jobe since he first started playing in the NSL,’’ Culina said.
‘‘There was always talk of him being a great prospect but it never materialised.
‘‘We had a bit of chat. I told him some of the things he needed to do, and to his credit he did those.
‘‘He had been very unlucky with injuries as well. That was part of the problem but there were other things as well.
‘‘He has responded very well. Since that talk, he has grown in stature as a person and as a player.
‘‘His peers respect him, the coaching staff and club management respect him.
‘‘We hope the responsibility we have given him will see further improvement as a player, a person and a leader.’’
Wheelhouse, who owns a house at Coal Point, admits he has matured during the past 18 months.
He has altered his diet and training regime.
In general he has become more professional.
‘‘That has probably helped my play on the pitch, looking after my body off it,’’ Wheelhouse said.
But with Kasey Wehrman and Young Socceroos captain Ben Kantarovski vying for a place in midfield, Wheelhouse knows nothing is guaranteed, despite the (c) beside his name.
‘‘I’m like everyone else, I’ve got to perform to keep my place in the side,’’ Wheelhouse said.
‘‘We have had a really good pre-season, not just myself but the whole squad.
‘‘We just can’t wait for the season to start now.
‘‘Most critics have written us off. There is nothing unusual in that but we believe we are as good as anyone.’’
Wheelhouse is proof of that.