IRISH import Roy O’Donovan is expected to return next weekend to bolster a record-breaking strike force that Jets coach Ernie Merrick believes can get even better.
O’Donovan, who scored seven goals in his first five games for Newcastle, has not played in eight weeks since suffering a serious groin injury in the round-10 win against Perth Glory.
The initial prognosis was that he would be sidelined for 12 weeks but Merrick confirmed after Thursday’s 2-all draw with Melbourne City that the 32-year-old would be available for the home game against Melbourne Victory on Saturday week.
“We've got Roy O'Donovan coming back and Dimi Petratos as well,” Merrick said.
Petratos missed the clash with City after flying back from Melbourne to be with his wife, who went into labour on the day of the game.
Even in the absence of O’Donovan and marquee signing Ronny Vargas for most of this campaign, the Jets are flying high in second spot and maintained a four-point buffer over third-placed City on Thursday.
They have scored at least one goal in every game, and their brace against City took them to 39 for the season, smashing the club record of 38, set in 2011-12.
Merrick had no doubt that Newcastle can be even more potent once he can partner O’Donovan, Petratos, Vargas and Argentine winger Pato Roriguez in the same line-up.
In addition, new signing Riley McGree made an immediate impression against City, setting up a goal within 10 minutes of debuting for Newcastle off the bench.
"Our attacking midfield play, I think we can control more of the ball ... I think we can improve that, and then our service to the strikers," Merrick said.
“But we're getting better at it all the time.”
Merrick admitted that “I don't think anyone is going to challenge Sydney for the premiers' plate”, given that the defending champions were six points clear of Newcastle before Friday night’s game against Melbourne Victory.
While he maintained that the Jets “are very focused on finishing up in the top four”, he was confident his players could cope with higher expectations.
"What we do is good, and what we do, we're doing well,” he said. "But in fairness to other coaches at Newcastle in previous years, I think we've assembled a very high-quality squad.
"We've had two or three out through injury, but they're all coming back in now. If the expectation upon us is high, I think that's a good thing.
"I was wondering if they could cope with it, and the players can certainly cope with it. So I'm pretty happy with where we're at, how we're performing. It's a very good Newcastle team."
Merrick’s men are averaging more than two goals a game for the first time in the club’s history, a far cry from last season when they scored only 28 goals in 27 rounds and finished with the wooden spoon.
"We want to keep it going,” Merrick said.
"That goal difference is not far off Sydney's, and the [top] two teams are way above everyone else.
“I think our goal difference is [plus] 17 and the next one is [plus] seven. It's important that we score goals.”
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.