Jets' best still to come
There has been something about Newcastle’s revival over the past few weeks that suggests their best is yet to come and that if the competition frontrunners are not already looking nervously over their shoulders, they soon will be.
ADMITTEDLY there is a long way to go.
Having completed 16 of their 30 regular-season games, the Newcastle Jets are barely halfway into their A-League campaign.
At this stage in proceedings, they are far from certainties to feature in the play-offs, let alone challenge for the title.
But there has been something about Newcastle-s revival over the past few weeks that suggests their best is yet to come and that if the competition frontrunners are not already looking nervously over their shoulders, they soon will be.
Saturday-s 2-0 win against North Queensland Fury in Townsville continued an impressive sequence that has yielded three wins and two draws for the Jets in 21 days - not counting last week-s 2-1 victory against LA Galaxy in an exhibition match.
The last-placed Fury are hardly the A-League-s most coveted scalp.
But Saturday-s result was a crucial step nonetheless in Newcastle-s mid-season resurgence. So often the ugly wins, especially on the road, are the ones that make or break a season.
The two-goal margin probably flattered the Jets, because for 79minutes this game was a tactical and technical arm wrestle.
But in the end it was the Fury who cracked, and once again Newcastle-s defence deserved maximum kudos.
The Jets may have scored fewer goals (13) than any team in the competition, but they have also conceded the least (12).
Saturday-s was their sixth clean sheet of the season, adding further substance to Newcastle-s reputation as the A-League-s most resilient outfit.
To put the Jets- new-found steely edge into context, consider their transformation from last season, when they conceded 45 goals in the regular season, more than any team except North Queensland (46).
After their first 16 games, they had leaked 26 goals - more than twice as many as at the corresponding stage of this season.
Only twice had they maintained a clean sheet.
The Jets reached the play-offs last season, but coach Branko Culina realised they would never be contenders until they provided more resistance in front of goal.
And somehow, in the space of 12 months, Culina has rebuilt his team with a discipline and work ethic that is fast earning respect.
If results suggest the Jets have undergone a wholesale makeover, the reality is their back four - Adam D-Apuzzo, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Ljubo Milicevic and Tarek Elrich - are the same as last season. Goalkeeper Ben Kennedy has also been a mainstay, at least until he missed Saturday-s win with a knee injury.
The off-season signing of Kasey Wehrman, who returned to Australia after nine years playing in Norway, has proven a masterstroke.
A formidable presence with or without the ball, Wehrman has established himself as the best holding midfielder in the A-League.
And at the other end of the pitch, Newcastle-s progress has also been encouraging.
After finding the net just five times in their first 11matches, the five games since English import Francis Jeffers arrived have produced eight goals.
Jeffers has only five more games left in his guest stint, but the arrival in January of Ryan Griffiths, and the likely return from injury of skipper Michael Bridges and Jeremy Brockie, should compensate for the departure of the talismanic Pom.
A point adrift of the top six, but with two games in hand, the Jets can climb to outright fifth if they beat Melbourne Heart at AAMI Park on Wednesday night.
From there, the way they are playing, anything appears possible.