WORRYING TIMES: The Jets bench surveys the action against Sydney. – Picture by Simone De PeakELEVEN games into the A-League campaign, and the Jason Culina affair lingers over the Newcastle Jets like a black cloud.
Back in February, when the Jets announced they had recruited Culina to a three-year deal, it was widely accepted as a coup – a foundation stone in the empire Newcastle’s billionaire owner Nathan Tinkler was intent on building.
But with the benefit of hindsight, how wrong we were.
At the time, the Jets were expected to further supplement their roster with a proven goal scorer, and names such as Shane Smeltz and Michael Owen featured in dispatches.
For whatever reason those plans were subsequently aborted, but the club maintained a brave face.
Culina’s presence, it was explained, would create opportunities that brought out the best in Newcastle’s existing strike force.
That tenuous theory disintegrated soon afterwards when Culina broke down at training and required season-ending surgery on his knee.
The same knee that had been under the scalpel seven months earlier, before he joined Newcastle.
So suddenly the Jets were not only down a marquee midfielder, but also the man who was supposed to convert his handiwork into goals.
If only they could have their time over.
Culina’s unavailability left Newcastle with a squad that, on paper at least, was arguably not even as strong as it had been 12 months earlier, when the Jets were not good enough to reach the play-offs and finished seventh.
Out went Ljubo Milicevic, Sasho Petrovski and Adam D’Apuzzo.
In came Tiago, Chris Payne and Byun Sung-hwan.
Jeremy Brockie and Ryan Griffiths, admittedly, were like new signings, having scarcely featured in 2010-11.
If the season ahead shaped as a tall order for Jets coach Branko Culina, it was soon no longer his problem as he was unceremoniously punted – along with his injured son – and replaced by Gary van Egmond.
Van Egmond was no stranger to such circumstances.
In season two of the A-League, the man they call ‘‘Dutchy’’ was parachuted into the top job after Newcastle started disastrously under Nick Theodorakopoulos.
Van Egmond famously steered the Jets from the competition cellar to within one win of the grand final, then a year later they captured the ultimate prize.
But even Jesus managed only one resurrection.
Newcastle’s 2-1 loss to Sydney at Ausgrid Stadium on Saturday, after leading 1-0 at half-time, highlighted the challenge van Egmond is facing.
The squad he inherited from Culina has shown few signs of emulating the one Theodorakopoulos left behind.
A host of Newcastle’s players are off contract, and if results do not improve then tough decisions will have to be made.
Having lost eight of the past nine games on the road, the Jets can scarcely afford to slip up at home, as they did against Sydney.
After consecutive losses to Central Coast and Sydney, combined with Melbourne Victory’s win against Wellington yesterday, Newcastle have dropped out of the top six.
If van Egmond’s troops hope to avoid finishing with the also-rans for the second year in a row, they could do worse than heed Sydney captain Terry McFlynn’s comments after his team’s gutsy victory on Saturday.
‘‘There were a few home truths said at half-time,’’ McFlynn said. ‘‘Everyone took it on the chin and we played for each other.’’
If only it was that simple.
This week the Jets head to Wellington, where they have suffered seven successive defeats.
‘‘But what an opportunity,’’ van Egmond said.
‘‘If there’s a place where you want to make a statement and show that we’re back, that’s the place.’’
One thing is certain. Jason Culina won’t be able to help them.