NEWCASTLE Jets fans can only ponder what might have been after their team's season-ending 3-0 win against Wellington Phoenix at Kogarah on Thursday night.
The Jets were out of play-off contention before the game kicked off but can take solace in their remarkable finish to the season, after the decision in January to replace coach Ernie Merrick with Carl Robinson.
In 11 games under Robinson, the Jets posted seven wins, three draws and a solitary defeat, climbing from bottom rung on the ladder to eighth. They have been the A-League's best-performed team in that period, scoring 20 goals and conceding 10.
Their win against Wellington completed a clean sweep of the top three, after also beating minor premiers Sydney (2-1) and second-placed Melbourne City (2-1).
Any disappointment about missing the finals is at least partially offset by excitement about what the Jets might be able to achieve under Robinson next season.
Newcastle drew first blood a minute before half-time when, after intricate lead-up play, Angus Thurgate dribbled into the box and linked with Nick Fitzgerald, whose deflected shot beat Phoenix keeper Stefan Marinovic.
Substitute Bernie Ibini made it 2-0 with a long-range solo effort in the 76th minute. Three minutes later, Jason Hoffman added a third.
Jets coach Carl Robinson promoted 19-year-old goakkeeper Noah James for his A-League debut.
An Australian under-18 and under-20 representative, James has been the back-up to Lewis Italiano since veteran Glen Moss retired during the coronavirus shutdown.
James had an early "sighter" when the Jets conceded a free kick in the second minute, but the shot from Wellington's Callum McCowatt flew wide of the post.
The debutant then made the first save of his A-League career when he blocked a Matti Steinmann header with his own head.
There was a scare for the Jets in the 27th minute when David Ball finished off a pass from Liberato Cacace, only to be ruled offside. Ball then found himself in open space, forcing a confident one-on-one save from James.
Newcastle came within centimetres of opening the scoring in the 37th minute when Hoffman headed a corner just over the crossbar.
Jets defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley, booked in the 42nd minute for a challenge on Ulises Davila, kept himself out of trouble to complete the full game and uphold a remarkable record.
Topor-Stanley has played every minute of every game for the past three seasons.
Dimi Petratos was recalled to the Newcastle starting line-up, along with striker Abdiel Arroyo, which left Roy O'Donovan and Bernie Ibini to provide impact off the bench.
Arroyo joined the Jets on a one-season loan deal from Panamanian club Arabe Unido, so Thursday's game might well be his last in a Newcastle shirt.
Thurgate was unlucky not to give the Jets a 2-0 lead in the 64th minute when his shot crashed into the right-hand post.
The third-placed Phoenix went into Thursday's game three competition points behind Melbourne City, who take on Western United in their final game next week.