THE Newcastle Jets won much more than a football game on Saturday night.
In the process of a memorable 2-1 boilover against reigning A-League champions Sydney FC at McDonald Jones Stadium, the Jets earned a reward above and beyond three competition points: respect, credibility and admiration, which too often have been in short supply for the past decade.
Against arguably the finest team in A-League history, who had lost only two of their previous 50 games and were unbeaten against Newcastle in 15 consecutive fixtures, something special was always going to be required.
When Jets striker Roy O’Donovan was controversially sent off in the 14th minute, all hope seemed lost.
Surely no 10-man team could contain Sydney’s all-conquering strike force for so long.
Only the most parochial diehards in the 18,156-strong crowd, Newcastle’s largest turnout in five years, dared dream the night would not end in heartache.
Yet not once this season have the Jets dropped their bundle, and perhaps Sydney underestimated not just the quality of their opponents, but also their resilience.
A goal before half-time, from a Dimi Petratos penalty, gave Newcastle a 1-0 lead and energised the pulsating grandstands.
Hearts sank early in the second half when the visitors equalised but then, against all odds, Andrew Nabbout, appearing in possibly his last game for the club before heading to Japan, produced another long-range wonder goal.
Spurred on by regular renditions of the tribal, trademark New-cas-tle chant, Ernie Merrick’s men held on to secure a victory that will linger long in the memory.
In so doing, they sounded a warning: not only will the Jets be involved in this season’s play-offs (for the first time in eight years), they will almost certainly qualify second, to earn at least one home final.
And if they can beat Sydney with 10 men, nobody should doubt that with a full complement they can claim the ultimate prize.
All this from last season’s wooden spooners.
Moreover, they have now thrown down the gauntlet to the Newcastle Knights, who will host Manly on Friday in front of an even bigger crowd.
If the Knights can play with half as much passion and commitment as their round-ball counterparts, their season-opener should provide further cause for Novocastrian pride and joy.
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