THE worry for Newcastle Jets fans is not that their club is again at the crossroads, but that it actually reached that defining juncture two years ago and took the wrong turn.
Wind back the clock to January, 2018, and the Jets were deep into a memorable season that would deliver more wins and goals than any previous campaign, a home grand final in front of 29,410 fans, and ultimately a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Melbourne Victory that hinged on a video-refereeing howler.
Despite the anti-climactic finale, there seemed no reason why it couldn't be the start of something special.
Instead, two years on, the Novocastrians faithful are entitled to be feeling an eerie sense of deja vu. Their club is back in a familiar position - occupying the bottom rung on the A-League ladder - and the dust is yet to settle after the sacking of coach Ernie Merrick.
Regardless of whether or not Merrick's rather ruthless dismissal was warranted, Jets officials now face perhaps the most crucial decision in the club's history.
Whoever is appointed as the veteran Scotsman's replacement simply has to be the right man for the job. If management get it wrong, then how long Newcastle remain in the doldrums is anyone's guess.
What the Jets desperately need is a coach for the long haul.
It's not rocket science to point out that the most successful tacticians in any code are those who enjoy significant tenures.
Clubs who regularly turn over the man in the hot seat, in contrast, generally get what they deserve.
And it is no surprise that in the A-League's 15-season history, Newcastle have been close to the worst offenders.
Since inaugural coach Richard Money, the Jets have changed pilot 11 times. Only Adelaide (12) have shuffled through more mentors.
Merrick, in charge for two-and-a-half seasons, rates as Newcastle's second-longest serving coach, with 67 games.
Premiership winner Gary van Egmond, in two stints of 63 and 66 games, is the benchmark survivor.
Only three coaches - van Egmond, Merrick and Branko Culina - have lasted longer than one season.
When Merrick was appointed, he became Newcastle's sixth coach in little more than three years.
This can't continue if the Jets entertain any hope of becoming a consistent force in the competition.
They are crying out for stability and a coach who can build a team, and a philosophy, capable of delivering sustained success.
That, of course, will be easier said than done, for a couple of obvious reasons.
First, choosing a coach is always a gamble.
As the Newcastle Knights discovered with Wayne Bennett, and as Manchester United learned with Jose Mourinho, sometimes even the most highly credentialled candidates are not the right fit.
The other issue could well be the finances that Jets owner Martin Lee is willing to make available.
If, as appears likely, Lee intends to keep the club running on a strict budget, that could prove a deterrent to potential applicants.
For mine, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Any coach who thinks the solution to Newcastle's problems is simply spending more money on players should be given a wide berth.
The priorities for the incoming coach should be, first and foremost, to get the best out of the current squad, and to ensure that the elite juniors to emerge from Newcastle's youth system and academy are given every opportunity to play A-League for the Jets.
Strategic recruits will naturally need to be added, and in particular the Jets will be hoping for more impact from their overseas imports.
It's hard to imagine Newcastle ever competing with the salaries that teams like Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory spend on their marquee men.
A more realistic goal for the new coach will be to deliver a combative squad who are well organised, consistently hard to beat and competing each season for a berth in the play-offs.
Newcastle's greatest sporting successes have traditionally been as underdogs, springing ambushes on their richer, more glamorous rivals.
That sits well with the city's psyche, and I believe it's important that the coach embraces that mentality.
In the circumstances, I don't see any reason for the powers-that-be to rush into any decision.
Only the club's most one-eyed supporters would give them any chance of reaching the finals this season, whoever is in charge. The greater priority will be merely to avoid the wooden spoon.
With that in mind, why not leave caretaker coach Craig Deans in charge until the end of this campaign? If he is able to turn results around, the Jets may not need to look any further for a head man.
The importance of this decision is perhaps best highlighted by Newcastle's average home crowd for this season - 8287 - which is their smallest since 2019-10.
As shown by the grand final crowd two years ago, vacant seats on the bandwagon are few and far between when the Jets are flying high.
Appoint the wrong coach, however, and this time next year the downturn may continue to the point where many lose interest altogether.
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