FOR Nigel Boogaard, it’s not just about this season, or this team.
LEAD ROLE: Nigel Boogaard doubted if he would ever get to play for the Newcastle Jets. Now he will captain them in a grand final on home soil. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
He sees the 2017-18 A-League soccer grand final as an unprecedented chance to honour one of the oldest and proudest footballing strongholds in Australia, whichhe believes hasnever really received sufficientrecognition.
“It’s a big football community and I don’t think it gets enough credit, nationally, how much football knowledge there is in the area, and how much history there is here,” the Newcastle Jets skipper said in the countdown to Saturday’s championship decider against Melbourne Victory at McDonald Jones Stadium.
“Hopefully this grand final, some of the old stories will come out to remind everyone that there is a lot more than just the Jets up here.
“I suppose this grand final, where we are now, is the culmination of all those pioneers and players that have come before us.”
From the Minmi Rangers, founded in 1884, through to the prolific Reg Date, known as the “Bradman of football”, and onto Col Curran, Ray Baartz,Craig Johnston and Cheryl Salisbury, Newcastle and the Hunter has been a heartlandfor the round-ball code. Boogaard was born to play his part in upholding thattradition.
His father, Michael, represented Newcastle’s inaugural national-league entity, KB United, and Nigel’s earliest memories are of accompanying his dad to training and games.
“KB was a little bit before my time, but I used to be around with Dad when he came back to [Edgeworth], and even when he coached,” he recalled.
The towering centre back seemed certain to follow in his father’s footsteps, at least up until the inception of the A-League in 2005-06.
“I played all my youth football here, right up until the NSL, but at the time the A-League started, nobody [from the Jets] actually came and approached me,” he said.
“I was on the Central Coast, playing State League in Sydney, and Ian Ferguson, who was the assistant coach under Lawrie [McKinna] at the Mariners, approached me. There was an opportunity to play football professionally and I jumped at it.
“They actually said that if Newcastle made me and offer I could take it, but that never happened and I’m forever grateful to the Lawrie and the Mariners for the opportunity they gave me.”
At the Mariners, Boogaard appeared in what has been his only grand final thus far, the 1-0 loss to Newcastle at Sydney Football Stadium in 2008.
“It was obviously disappointing not to win, but if any team beat us, I was glad it was Newcastle,” he said.
From the Mariners, he moved to Adelaide, where he spent five seasons before receiving an offer too good to be true –a three-year deal and the chance to captainhis home-town club.
But his dream jobcame at a price. The same season he returned to Newcastle, his former Adelaide teammates won the championship with a 3-1 triumph against Western Sydney.
“I think I may have been the only change to that squad that won it,” he said.
“It’s obviously disappointing but it was great to see my former teammates, who had obviously been through some lean times as well, succeed. It was hard to take, but I was always confident we could achieve something special here.”
That belief was certainly put to the test, in more ways than one.
In his first season at the Jets, he was sent off three times, including an embarrassing red card on debut against Wellington. Newcastle finished eighth that season, and a year later they slipped to last during a campaign in which Boogaard was sidelined for four games with a knee injury, and suffered the indignity of starting Newcastle’s round-22 loss to Brisbane on the bench.
A six-game losing streak to end the season, during which they were outscored 19-1, left the Jets as play-off spectators for the seventh consecutive season and cost coach Mark Jones his job.
Any despair Boogaard was feeling dissipated soon after the arrival of the A-League’s most experienced tactician, Ernie Merrick, anda host of quality imports.
“It’s a been big turnaround,” he said. “In the pre-season, we set some goals as a team and a club and from round one [a 5-1 win against Central Coast] you could see it all coming together. The belief started to grow that we could achieve something this year.”
A 2-1 home win against mighty Sydney FC in round 22 convinced most that Newcastle were genuine contenders, but Boogaard suffered a fractured kneecap that he initially feared would end his season.
Courageously the 31-year-old returned in last week’s semi-final, playing through the pain barrier to lead his team to a 2-1 triumph against Melbourne City that earned the Jets a historic grand final on home turf.
“It’s even more special is to be hosting it at home,” he said. “First time, and you can feel the buzz around the town …I never thought I’d get the opportunity to come back and play for my home town.
“To be able to come back and lead such a good bunch of boys out onto the park, in front of 30,000 Novocastrians, it will be a special occasion.
“For me and the other half-dozen local boys in the team, it’s about repaying the football community.
“It might be ex-teammates or coaches, and we’ll be out there, representing them.
“You learn from them along the way, and this is a chance to repay their time and their faith. It’s going to be a special night.”