SYDNEY FC coach Steve Corica provided an unintentional reminder of the odds stacked against the Newcastle Jets during his media conference after last Saturday’s clash between the two clubs at Kogarah.
Sydney had just beaten the Jets 1-0 to climb to second on the ladder, and truth be told, should probably have won by an even larger margin, despite the absence of Milos Ninkovic, one of their most potent attackers, and Josh Brillante, arguably their best midfielder.
Most would assume that, at the halfway point in the season, Sydney are sitting pretty to challenge for the title, a situation with which they are all too familiar.
But the powers-that-be at Bling FC apparently aren’t satisfied with the star-studded roster already at Corica’s disposal.
Asked if he hoped to bolster his ranks with an import during the January transfer window, Corica replied: “We’re still looking very hard.
“There’s about three or four we’re down to, three actually, at the moment.
“I’m hoping that in the next couple of days if the player is free that we want, he’s available and we can sort that out very quickly, and we can get him over as soon as possible.”
So in other words Sydney, already one of the A-League’s established heavyweights, are intent on making themselves even stronger.
Newcastle, on the other hand, who will need a late-season minor miracle to scrape into the top six, have made it quite clear they have no plans to sign anyone during this window.
This apparently does not sit well with some fans, whose commentary via social media prompted Jets CEO Lawrie McKinna this week to respond with an open letter on the club’s website.
“The month of January is always full of speculation, with transfer talk aplenty and the potential for player movement,” McKinna explained.
“This season we have a full 23-man squad – which will also participate in Asian Champions League qualifiers – with players contracted for this season and beyond. We’re not in position to make sweeping changes, nor do we need to.”
Moreover, McKinna added: “Our player budget for the 2018-19 season is the most the club has ever spent in a single season, marginally up from last year. Despite this, the club’s overall spend still falls below the league average.”
All of which reaffirms the theory that Newcastle are not competing on a level playing field with their more affluent rivals, and to be successful, they therefore have to punch above their weight.
That is not intended as a criticism, rather a statement of fact.
While some fans seem to believe Jets owner Martin Lee needs to loosen the purse strings, I tend to take the view that we should be grateful for his generosity.
Lee paid an estimated $5.5 million as a licence fee in 2016. On top of that, he is understood to have tipped in an additional $2 million in each of his three seasons at the helm.
Even for a man reported to be a billionaire, it’s not a cheap hobby.
Yet it's not as if Lee has been satisfied with funding a second-rate team.
In his first season, the Jets finished with the wooden spoon and he not only reinforced the squad with signings such as Roy O’Donovan, Ronny Vargas, Dimi Petratos and Nikolai Topor-Stanley, he hired the A-League’s most experienced coach, Ernie Merrick.
His investment paid dividends when Newcastle reached the play-offs for the first time in eight years, scoring more goals and winning more games than any season in their A-League history.
To host a grand final, which they lost 1-0 after an infamous video-refereeing decision, was beyond the wildest dreams of all but their most parochial fans.
This season, admittedly, has been a reality check.
Maybe the Jets overachieved last season, maybe they are underachieving this time around.
The bottom line is that they have been competitive almost every week, which is something Jets fans should never take for granted, if they reflect on darker days not so long ago.
Merrick has a decent squad under his command, with a good balance of youth and experience, but perhaps lacking the X-factor that Andrew Nabbout and then Riley McGree provided last season.
Before a ball was kicked this season, fans were entitled to regard the Jets as top-six contenders.
That now appears a long shot, given the eight-point gap between Newcastle and sixth-placed Wellington.
But there are still 12 regular-season games to play and it would be premature to start writing any obituaries.
It’s safe to say that Merrick’s men won’t go down without a fight. And, realistically, is there anything more we can ask for?
The notion that the A-League salary cap would create an even and fair competition continues to dwindle in credibility with each passing season.
That suits some clubs just fine. The rest just have to do their best and strive to get maximum bang for their buck.
That means more often than not, the Jets will be cast in the role of giant-killing underdogs. Most Novocastrians wouldn’t want it any other way.