GARY van Egmond either possesses a crystal ball, or he has a greater understanding of football than his critics would have you believe.
SPOILS OF VICTORY: Gary van Egmond with the A-League trophy after Newcastle’s 2008 grand final win against Central Coast. Picture: Ryan Osland
Twelve months ago, the day after Newcastle Jets sacked Mark Jones as head coach, van Egmond sent me a prophetic text.
“It will be better next season,” he predicted.
“Why so?” I asked.
“The squad will be better,” he replied.
The logic, presumably, was that Jets owner Martin Lee, embarrassed after finishing last in his first season at the helm, would invest in players capable of giving his team a fighting chance.
That process had already begun before Jones was shown the door. Dimi Petratos, Daniel Georgievski and Roy O’Donovan had either signed or were well down the track in negotiations, but unfortunately for Jones, he never got the chance to coach them.
Instead Lee turned to the A-League’s most experienced tactician, two-time championship winner Ernie Merrick, and gave him enough backing to assemble what the Scotsman has repeatedly described as “a high-quality squad”.
Merrick has produced a minor miracle by steering the wooden spooners into Saturday’s grand final. If the Jets beat Melbourne Victory at McDonald Jones Stadium, they will become the first A-League team to go from worst to first in the space of a season.
From van Egmond’s viewpoint, regardless of Saturday’s result, the most reassuring aspect of Newcastle’s resurrection is that the club now appears capable of long-term stability and success, on and off the pitch.
It was a different story 10 years ago, whenthe man they call “Dutchy” masterminded Newcastle’sfirst A-League grand final win, a 1-0 triumph against Derby rivals Central Coast Mariners.
Within days of hoisting the trophy, van Egmond’s championship team was disintegrating. The grand final goalscorer, Mark Bridge, signed with Sydney FC, along with born-and-bred Novocastrian midfielder Stuart Muialik.
Defender Andrew Durante, man of the match in the decider, accepted a deal with Wellington Phoenix.
The exodus continued in coming months, as James Holland, Ante Covic and the Griffiths twins, Joel and Adam, headed for greener pastures.
Newcastle nosedived from first to last in the space of a season and van Egmond, frustrated by the management of Con Constantine, and concerned that his own head might be on the chopping block, bailed out to accept a position atthe Australian Institute of Sport.
Asked to reflect on that tumultuous period, van Egmond told Sporting Declaration:”It was very difficult, and the worst bit was that we didn’t have to lose them.
“It’s 100 per cent not what you want. Especially considering who those players were, and how much time we had put into developing them.”
Ten years on, van Egmond is confident the Jets will not venture down the same misguided path.
For the first time, he says, the club’s key personnel –Lee, Merrick, CEO Lawrie McKinna and football-operations manager Joel Griffiths –are “all on the same page”.
“With Joel being involved in that [Constantine] era, he would have seen good things and bad things,” van Egmond said. “He’s now in a position to ensure they don’t repeat the mistakes.
“I guess if you can learn from history, that’s fantastic.
“Plus you’ve got the two wily Scots [Merrick and McKinna] there, and it’s great to see that their knowledge is delivering success for Newcastle.”
Van Egmond said that the Jets were no longer just a franchise, largely because of McKinna’s concerted efforts to form links with Newcastle’s football and business communities.
“It’s completely different now,” van Egmond said.
“Martin Lee, as an owner, he’s not hands-on in running the club. He leaves a lot of it to Lawrie.
“And what Lawrie has done really well is brought the football back to the football community to Newcastle. There was a time when people looked at the club as being above the community.
“Now it’s integrated, and that’s really important
“It looks like it’s going to have a lot of sustainable success for a number of years because it’s so stable off the field. We’ve never had that before.”
With regards to Saturday’s grand final, van Egmond sees “a lot of similarities” between Merrick’s men and his own champion outfit: potent strike forces, industrious midfielders and experienced defenders.
He was confident that Newcastle, if they play to their potential, wouldsecure the trophy on home turf.
“They’reat home, and they’regoing to have such a parochial crowd behind them,” he said.
“They’ll be the12th man.
“We’ve got home-ground advantage, Victory have come through a very physical semi-final and they’ll have certain people [assistant coaches Jean-Paul de Marigny and Dean Anastasiadis] who are unavailable because of suspension.
“They’ll use that to create a siege mentality to galvanise them, and they certainly have some very dangerous players. But if theback six can contain their front third, I’ve got no doubt that Newcastle’s front third can expose theirback four.”