It was the perfect hit-out just under a week before a crucial FFA Cup clash, with the Newcastle Jets running out 2-0 winners over NPL Northern NSW opposition, Hamilton Olympic.
There were debuts for a number of youngsters as well as Irishman, Wes Hoolahan, plus a first-ever starting berth for Abdiel Arroyo.
A healthy crowd turned out at Darling Street Oval to witness the enthralling clash, in which Hamilton put up a gritty fight.
Newcastle started the game in red hot fashion, with the front four of Nick Fitzgerald, Abdiel Arroyo, Wes Hoolahan, and Dimi Petratos combining to see the latter produce a shot on target inside 20 seconds.
The game settled into a fairly even rhythm, with the Jets controlling territory but a resolute and determined Olympic side were fighting for every opportunity.
The 12th minute saw the game’s next real chance when Hamilton fumble off an Abdiel Arroyo shot set up Nick Fitzgerald from close range, but desperate defending saw his shot deflect out for aa corner.
A new-look back four of Matt Millar, Pat Langlois, Johnny Koutroumbis, and Jason Hoffman (from right to left) stood tall for the duration, laying the foundation for some effective play through the midfield.
It was one of those men – Koutroubmis – who opened the scoring for Newcastle in the 25th minute. He hit a blistering shot from outside the areas in the afters of a corner, which kept low through a sea of legs to ripple the back of the net.
A little under a minute later, the Jets were in again as Jason Hoffman broke down the left-hand side and delivered a low, pinpoint ball which Abdiel Arroyo was never going to miss.
Chances proved few as the half wore on and the second half began, the best of them a chance to Nick Fitzgerald who rounded the ‘keeper and got a shot off from a tight angle – the post denied him.
The 53rd-57th minute saw Ernie Merrick make a total of nine changes, with the only players from the starting XI to remain on the pitch Pat Langlois and Lewis Italiano. Italiano would eventually be substituted in the 71st minute and replaced by Keegan Hughes.
Among the boys who came on were Kosta and Maki Petratos, as well as first-team debuts for Tom Beecham, Jackson Frendo, and Joey O’Connor.
The evening’s number 45, Joey O’Connor, had a chance in the 65th minute when he found himself in a good yet tight position, but his shot went across the face.
There were a smattering of chances at either end as the game wore down, but neither side were able to add to the scoreline and it finished 2-0.
What Ernie Merrick said
On the playing style:
“Our key players, our 14 or 15 starting-type players that we have, I wanted them all to have a good run, especially in that first half.
“We worked on our gameplan, we knew how the other team were going to play but that wasn’t of any concern, it was about making sure we compress the middle third when we didn’t have the ball and they were playing out, and winning the ball in the middle third through pressing.
“When we get to a reset position, pressing to win the ball, and then playing forward from there. Not always counter-attacking, but trying to get forward reasonably quickly and the boys did it extremely well. I’m very happy with it."
On the opposition:
“It wasn’t easy – the Hamilton boys were up for it."
“They’re very fit, they’ve had a long season and we’re in pre-season. They made it very competitive for us and it’s a credit to them, they kept us to the two goals."
On faces new and old:
“I was very happy with Matt Ridenton and Steve Ugarkovic in the middle, Dimi [Petratos] linking a lot with our new players in Wes [Hoolahan] and Abidel Arroyo. He [Arroyo] was making some great runs in behind.
“Nick [Fitzgerald] showed, he almost scored just after half-time, he’s getting the hang of the way we play.
“I feel as though the new players have grasped the way we play, our gameplan, and they’re working really well at ball-winning and short, sharp passing, which was very good."
On a new-look backline:
“Jason Hoffman, I could play him anywhere, even in goals I think he’d do a job for us. Jason is an athlete, he was up and down and continually getting forward and working on the left-hand flank with Nick… as was Matty [Millar] on the right.
“We’ve got several really good attacking fullbacks, and Jason shows that he can play there and do a good job.
“The special two, Johnny [Koutroumbis] and Pat [Langlois], I thought they were outstanding as centre-backs. The special two. Lewis [Italiano] was solid behind them, didn’t have a lot to do, but Johnny and Pat were terrific.
“Pat is coming on in leaps and bounds, I reckon I could play him just about anywhere and in any position.”