I’m a bit of a history nut.
I love watching documentaries on Cuba. The whole history of the country – the politics, the revolution, the US and the Soviets, Castro and Guevara – fascinates me. I love the imagery of those old 1950s Buicks and Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles winding their way through the streets of Havana. It’s raw, not westernised. I want to see that.
My fiancee, Emily, and I are going to Cuba for our honeymoon after we get married in Melbourne in June. She has actually been there before, albeit with her parents when she was little. Returning as an adult in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death two years ago will be fascinating for her. There were plenty of places we could’ve gone to, easier places, but it’s about not being another one of the sheep. We wanted to get out of our comfort zones and immerse ourselves in a country we had read so much about.
Signing for Newcastle was not without its adventurous element. You could spend your whole career only playing at bigger clubs, like Victory, but what’s wrong with a smaller club with aspirations? It’s a new experience, a challenge, another set of memories.
As with the honeymoon prep, I did quite a bit of reading after I decided to sign with the Jets. I wanted to learn about the history of Newcastle, to try to understand the town and what motivated the people.
The mining legacy, the railways and the ports, the earthquake … all of it. I wanted to understand the region I’d be representing and how it had come to be what it was. I’m glad I did. That context has made the experiences of this season with the Jets all the more special.
The Jets sold the idea well to me but, in addition to being a researcher, I’m a gut-feeling guy too. I had to get the right feeling before I made the decision to come here. I did. The weather’s nice, the people are super friendly – and they absolutely love their sport.
I’ve watched and listened and developed a feel for what the Knights mean to the people here. Even when they ran last in each of the past three years of the NRL, the fans kept supporting them.
They’re backing the Jets as well. This season we’ve got the best home-crowd figures outside of three big-city teams – Victory, Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers.
It was one of our goals this season to bring the fans back. They’ve had to endure some bad years, but gradually they’ve returned. There’s plenty more where they came from, too. Hopefully, they’ll come out in two weeks when we play our first semi-final since 2010.
EMBRACED BY AN ENTIRE CITY
I’ll give you an example of how Newcastle has wrapped its arms around us this season.
Four weeks ago, me and a few of my Newcastle Jets teammates had just finished breakfast at a beachside cafe and were heading back to our car. A guy came running over towards us.
As a footballer, you’re often wary when someone appears out of the blue like that. It’s a game full of passion – on both sides of the fence – and you never know how the fans are going to react.
I needn’t have worried.
‘Boys! Well done on your season and good luck for the weekend!’ he said.
He’d seen us from across the road and had taken the time to get out of his car and come over to shake our hands. He even closed the door for us after we piled into the car (we were heading to the airport ahead of our game against Wellington Phoenix).
One of the other players, who was there when the Jets finished bottom of the table the previous season, said to me, ‘Mate, no one ever did anything like that last year’.
‘We must be doing something great for the town,’ I thought.
I did quite a bit of reading after I decided to sign with the Jets. I wanted to learn about the history of Newcastle, to try to understand the town and what motivated the people.
It’s been like this from the moment I arrived here from the Victory.
I would go into the city to find my way around. Football fans would recognise me and say things like, ‘Thanks for signing for the Jets,’ and ‘We really appreciate it’. More recently it’s been, ‘Thanks for giving us hope this year,’ and, ‘Keep it up!’
There was never a sense of, ‘Mate, you’d better kill it this year because the team was shit last year’.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve thanked for accepting me the way they have. They haven’t had much to cheer about with their football in the last few years and I don’t want to disappoint them now. None of us do.
That’s why we’re determined to get it right in the last round against Central Coast Mariners and go into the playoffs in good form. We’ve talked about it a lot this week and put things into practice on the training field. Now it’s time for action.
The derby game against the Mariners is perfect timing for us.
We hadn’t lost two games in a row all season before now, so to lose three straight is a real learning curve for us. Ernie Merrick and the players have worked hard to establish what went wrong in those games and much of it has been to do with us not sticking to our structures or getting our combinations right.
Basically, we veered off course from what we normally do.
It isn’t to do with effort. We’ve still been doing all the running we normally do in games, but it hasn’t been effective running. It’s been wasted effort.
I think there’s also been an element of us knowing we were going to finish second and taking our foot off the pedal a bit. That can happen in football, but it still can’t be excused. We’d been consistent all season and we’ve got to get that back before it’s too late.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Before the season began, all of us – coaches, players and staff – went to a function centre in the Hunter Valley for a day-long meeting to set goals.
Everyone had the chance to speak and a lot of good, positive stuff came out. No-one was being dragged down by the fact the Jets had missed the finals for seven straight years.
I told the group there was no reason we couldn’t finish in the top three.
The club had made a number of excellent retention and recruitment decisions. We had also signed a two-time A-League championship-winning coach in Ernie.
I won a championship under Kevin Muscat at Victory in the 2014-15 season, so I know what a winning team feels like. I loved the look of what we had at the Jets.
It turned out that everyone pushed the top-three idea. We weren’t cocky, just realistic. We had a shared belief that pulled us together as a group.
This was only two weeks into pre-season and there were a lot of new faces at the club, some of whom had played against each other but weren’t familiar personally. Yet the thinking was the same. Everyone could see the potential and were prepared to set the bar high. I was impressed by that. You don’t see it all the time in football.
Ernie didn’t say a lot that day, but you could tell he was absorbing everything going on around him. He was trying to learn who we were as individuals. We weren’t even a team yet. This was just the start.
Our season began well – we were unbeaten in the first six rounds – and even when we started getting injuries to key players, it didn’t stop us. Ernie made adjustments and the players who came in did the job.
Our coach tells it like it is and that’s the way it’s got to be. There’s no soft-soaping the players or letting them make excuses. If we play badly, Ernie says it straight, but then he adds that we can fix it and offers the solution.
Eventually, everyone out there accepted that the Jets were real and headed for the finals and with half-a dozen rounds to go it was pretty clear only Sydney FC were going to finish ahead of us over the 27 rounds.
What happens after that is up to us.
Daniel Georgievski - Contributor