After eight years of heartbreak, this Grand Final will still be savoured
The excitement was palpable all week.
Newcastle hosting arguably its biggest ever sporting event – the Hyundai A-League Grand Final – and everyone and anyone was desperate to be at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Ernie Merrick’s Jets had done the impossible. From wooden-spooners last season to the title decider in the space of 12 short months.
10 years on from their maiden Grand Final triumph, Newcastle were on the precipice of another A-League title.
And while the 2008 victory over arch-rivals Central Coast Mariners remained firmly entrenched in the club’s history, the sense of unity and solidarity within the community throughout this week was unlike anything the Jets have ever seen.
The game itself sold out by Monday afternoon - 31,000 tickets snapped up in the blink of an eye.
Newcastle, historically a rugby-league haven with the Knights dominating the public consciousness, had become engrossed with the fairytale of the Jets’ remarkable renaissance.
While die-hard Jets supporters snapped up spots to the big dance, casual supporters and even non-football fans were queuing-up – literally – to snaffle up tickets to witness A-League history.
Given the huge public demand to watch the game, local councils even organised large public events to screen the match for those that missed out.
Throughout the week, you could sense something special was happening.
Local businesses, retailers and schools had all been throwing their support behind the Jets with flags, balloons and banners flying proudly across the city.
Newcastle were firmly behind their team. Hundreds of fans flocked to Jets training on Wednesday to get a glimpse of their heroes before the clash with three-time Champions Melbourne Victory.
Come game-day, the excitement levels had reached fever-pitch.
Thousands of fans congregated at a local leagues club – less than a kilometre from the stadium – for an official pre-game function and were treated to a showing of the famous 2008 Grand Final.
The place was abuzz.
Jets CEO Lawrie McKinna and club legends Joel Griffiths and Labinot Haliti were both given a hero’s welcome as they entered a packed function hall.
The now-famous ‘NEW-CAS-TLE’ chant reverberated around the venue as fans embraced the occasion.
McKinna’s impassioned speech lit a fuse among the supporters.
After eight years without the finals, turbulent off-field dramas, financial insecurity – Newcastle was finally back among the A-League’s elite.
But most tellingly, it was Newcastle’s all-time leading scorer – Joel Griffiths – who perhaps summed up the momentous occasion best with words unspoken.
Handed the microphone by McKinna, Griffiths began to reflect on the ‘rollercoaster’ times the club had endured over the past decade.
But an emotional Griffiths couldn’t continue. It clearly meant so much to him to see the Jets back and firing.
It was a fitting summation of how the club’s turnaround in fortunes has been received by the wider community.
Hordes of fans lined up in droves more than 45 minutes before the gates opened – desperate to get the best possible vantage point.
And as kick-off drew near, you could sense just what a special occasion this was for the Hunter region.
There wasn’t a blade of grass to spare on either of the iconic hills at the Northern and Southern ends.
Barely a single empty seat in the house.
And with their biggest ever home crowd behind them, the Jets started brightly.
But after a positive opening, Victory pounced with a sucker punch.
Against the run of play, Kosta Barbarouses seized on a loose ball inside the box and bundled the ball home from close range.
The crowd was stunned. Suddenly, the fairytale was looking shaky.
Newcastle quickly settled and worked their way back into the contest.
Dimi Petratos and Ronny Vargas linked-up beautifully in causing the Victory defence all sorts of problems with their creativity and intricate passing.
As the first-half wore on they continued to pepper Victory’s goal.
Roy O’Donovan forced Lawrence Thomas into a smart save before the Victory custodian somehow denied Riley McGree and Jason Hoffman in quick succession.
At half time, the belief was still well and truly there for the Jets.
But as the second half developed, it became less and less likely that Newcastle would achieve the ultimate turnaround.
A scrappy, niggly affair ensued as the clock continued to wind down.
Victory defended stoutly and created a number of chances to kill off the contest. Content to hit on the counter attack, Besart Berisha and Leroy George both looked threatening for the away side.
At the other end, Thomas put his body on the line – literally – multiple times to deny Newcastle’s desperate attempts to grab an equaliser.
And in the dying stages, a wayward O’Donovan boot collected the Victory custodian with a nasty challenge in a desperate attempt to connect with a Dimi Petratos free-kick.
The Irishman was shown a red card and took the gloss off a tremendously hard-fought contest between two well-matched sides.
As the full-time whistle blew, Victory players triumphantly celebrated a fourth Grand Final triumph.
The home crowd fell flat. Deflated.
It was far from pretty but Kevin Muscat’s side produced a professional, methodical performance to clinch the title.
For Newcastle, the dream run ended at the final hurdle.
And while the result didn’t go to plan, the club hasn’t lost any fans along the way.
For a team tipped to battle for the finals, Ernie Merrick’s side have exceeded all expectations.
A Grand Final was always a bonus. The community savoured the Jets’ unexpected success but certainly weren’t defined by it.
The Hunter needs – and deserves – a successful football team.
For too long that hasn’t been the case.
But Ernie Merrick’s men have finally brought that back to the region.