BEN Kantarovski’s wry smile can’t conceal the lingering disappointment.
Having made a personal-best 20 starting-team appearances for the Jets last season, Newcastle’s most-capped player suffered the heartache of tearing his hamstring in their final-round 8-2 drubbing of Central Coast – an injury that cost him a spot in their play-offs campaign.
Adding to his despair, the home-grown midfielder had been waiting eight years since his lone appearance in the finals, a 3-1 loss to Wellington in March, 2010.
“They’re the ones you want to play in as a professional athlete,” he said.
“It was devastating to miss those last two games. We worked hard all pre-season and during the season, and to get to the end and miss those critical games was very painful.
“But it’s a team sport, and you can’t take away what the boys achieved. We didn’t quite get there in the end, but hopefully we can do it this year.”
At 26, Kantarovski is a young veteran of the A-League and would have played many more than his 162 career games if not for a procession of knee injuries.
He says his problematic right knee has “come a long way”, thanks to diligent rehabilitation and physio, and he was now confident it would allow him to enjoy a long career.
“Hopefully it will be great for another 10 years,” he said. “I just have to work on keeping it strong and hopefully my football speaks for itself.”
Having been part of three wooden-spoon campaigns, Kantarovski said it was a welcome relief to feature in Newcastle’s 2017-18 resurrection, which culminated in a luckless 1-0 grand final loss to Melbourne Victory.
“We play football because we enjoy it, and last year was a very enjoyable year for everyone at the club,” he said.
“Not just the players, but the staff, the community, the supporters. We’re looking to build on that this season.
“There might be extra expectations, but that comes from us, ourselves, first and foremost.”
After nursing a calf problem for the past few weeks, Kantarovski will return in Saturday’s trial match against Northern NSW NPL champions at Jack McLaughlan Oval (kick-off 12pm).
“I had a slight calf strain, so it was a disappointing little interruption to the pre-season, but it’s coming along well and I’m back into full fitness at the moment,” he said.
Jets coach Ernie Merrick indicated on Friday he would start with Steven Ugarkovic and new signing Matthew Rindenton in midfield, before giving Kantarovski about 30 minutes off the bench.
Socceroo Dimi Petratos is expected to start after overcoming an ankle injury, but Merrick said Brazilian import Jair was not yet ready to make his club debut.
He is instead likely to receive some game time against Western Sydney at Maitland on Saturday week.
Today’s match will double as a fund-raiser for drought-stricken farmers.
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