THE Newcastle Jets sit atop the A-League ladder, which has been if not a remarkable start, certainly a highly promising launchpad for their 2017-18 campaign.
After Western Sydney recorded their A-League-record sixth consecutive away draw, holding Melbourne City out at AAMI Park, they ensured the Jets enter round seven proudly in the lead. Congratulations to coach Ernie Merrick, his staff and squad.
It’s fair to say I think, that many “experts” expected an improved showing from Newcastle this season, but the best start in the club’s history is surely beyond the expectations of almost everyone, outside of the Jets’ inner sanctum. So yes it's a surprise, a rather pleasant one for Jets fans, but not a scratch-your-head-in-complete-disbelief occurrence.
Congratulations to Jets coach Ernie Merrick, his staff and squad.
That is reserved for situations like seeing, as I mentioned to my ex-Marconi skipper, and Socceroos legend Tony Henderson, at the Syria game, Matt Jurman and Nikita Rukavytsya in the same Australian team in 2017!
Seriously, you would have got 1000-1 about that 18 months ago, but there they are, in the thick of the action, trying to ensure World Cup qualification for Australia. More on that quest shortly.
If I had told you after 35 minutes of Saturday’s clash with Adelaide that the Jets would be unbeaten at the conclusion of the match, and top of the A-league ladder, you would have called for the men in white coats to attend.
It was Newcastle’s worst start, and worst period, of the season to date, but they clawed their way back into the contest, with some serious help, courtesy of some awful Adelaide defending, and got another three points on the road.
You have to credit the fightback, the belief, and the tenacity, acknowledge that nobody plays fantastically week in and week out, and recognise that this is the first Jets side ever to win three consecutive away games.
It's often said that “winning ugly” when necessary is the sign of a good team, and I'd agree, but you don't want to go down that road too often if you can avoid it.
Coach Merrick has received praise for his attacking philosophy, man management, and quite a number of other facets, but I've been impressed most by his honesty, telling it like it is, not trying to cover things up with advanced football speak and technical mumbo-jumbo.
He knows, and his players will have been well and truly told, that if they start the same way against Sydney FC on Saturday night, they will be dead and buried at half-time.
I'm on record as saying that Graham Arnold's defending champions are currently the biggest test in the A-league, and a 2-0 loss to the Mariners on Friday night changes nothing in my analysis.
In fact it makes this week’s fixture possibly the worst time to face Sydney FC. There will be no complacency, no lackadaisical attitude, if anything an increase in intensity from the Sky Blues.
It has been a while since the Jets have even troubled Sydney, let alone looked like winning, and having turned a number of problems and shortcomings around already this season, it’s the perfect time to assess just where Merrick’s team is at.
Sydney will approach the game giving the Jets due respect for their excellent early-season form. Newcastle will be more confident, and perhaps bolder then they have been against this opponents in recent times.
A win will ensure the Jets stay on top of the table, but even if they lose or draw, they will remain in the top three. Newcastle’s fans will be chuffed, but I’m sure understand that another fixture takes pride of place as this week's most important game, indeed the most important game we’ve faced at national level for at least four years.
The importance of World Cup qualification to the overall health of the round-ball code in this country can hardly be overstated. And it comes down to 90 or 120 minutes on Wednesday night against Honduras at Homebush. Australia’s World Cup finals participation is worth a vital, base $15 million to the sport’s governing body the moment qualification is secured.
The flow-on effect in terms of publicity, media exposure, participation rates and so on, is almost immeasurable.
Those of us of certain age have witnessed some harrowing heartache, and unbridled joy at this final stage, and know only too well to take nothing for granted.
My eyes tell me that Honduras don't have too much to hurt us with.
My scarred soul reminds me that one slip, and an away goal for the visitors, would place an enormous amount of pressure on the Socceroos to grab two goals, given the recent returns in that department.
To compare Honduras to Uruguay would be bordering on sacrilegious, such is the gulf in talent. The Iran side of 1997 had more talent, but came from a poorer position, having conceded a goal at home, and coming from 0-2 down in Melbourne to break our hearts.
Syria, our last opponents had more to offer, on what we have seen from Honduras, but it did take the boys 120 minutes to secure that victory. Is it any consolation that New Zealand face a far tougher task away to Peru? Didn't think so. That Italy are perilously close to missing the World Cup finals for the first time in six decades? No, but imagine the angst and paranoia in that nation right now.
Think positive Lowe! Australia has an advantage in terms of talent, physical condition, with a number of fresh players to come in, and more time to prepare.
And we are at home, where our recent record is imposing. Sit back, take a deep breath, and pray for a happy Thursday.
CHAT WITH LOWEY
Ready to talk A-League? Former Socceroo David Lowe will be taking questions from 1.00PM – 2PM online every Wednesday. Visit www.theherald.com.au to join the chat.