Analysis: The reasons behind remarkable Jets revival
The Hyundai A-League 2016/17 season could hardly have ended more meekly for the Newcastle Jets.
With a seventh successive campaign without finals football confirmed well before round 27, the Jets slumped to six straight defeats to end their wretched season.
During those half-dozen games, the Jets failed to score a single goal from open play, with Andrew Nabbout's penalty in a 3-1 loss to Brisbane Roar the only goal Newcastle managed in nine hours of football.
Fast-forward twelve months and the Jets have undergone a complete transformation from cellar-dwellers to genuine Championship contenders.
On Friday night they'll host Melbourne City, knowing a win will send them to the Hyundai A-League Grand Final for the first time since they lifted the Championship trophy in 2007/08.
So what's behind this remarkable turnaround?
A few eyebrows were raised when Ernie Merrick was appointed Newcastle coach, replacing Mark Jones.
Merrick had departed Wellington after just eight rounds of the Hyundai A-League 2016/17 season with the Phoenix sitting last off the back of six losses in their first eight games.
But the amiable Scot blew a breeze of fresh air through McDonald Jones Stadium.
His attacking philosophy and willingness to give young players a chance made him instantly popular with the Jets faithful and he charmed the media with his friendly demeanour and dry-witted one-liners.
Quite simply, Merrick has been the single most important cog in the Hunter Valley revival and his contribution to the resurrection of the football club can't be overstated.
The signing of the season has been Dimi Petratos.
The former Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar attacker has proven to be a revelation for the Jets, scoring and creating goals and forging a potent attacking partnership with Andrew Nabbout.
So sublime was his form, he earned a thoroughly deserved Caltex Socceroos call-up.
Almost as crucial was the return of Nikolai Topor-Stanley after four seasons with the Western Sydney Wanderers.
The veteran defender formed a formidable central defensive partnership with club skipper Nigel Boogaard, providing a solid base from which Newcastle could repel opposition attacks.
Other new additions, such as Daniel Georgievski, Roy O'Donovan and latterly Riley McGree have also proved to be shrewd signings.
KEEPING THE CORE
A disappointing season is often followed by a mass player clean-out, but that didn't happen, even after such a miserable end to 2016/17.
Some of the most important players in 2017/18 were at the club last season, including skipper Nigel Boogaard, striker Andrew Nabbout, utility Jason Hoffman, goalkeeper Jack Duncan and midfielders Steven Ugarkovic and Ben Kantarovski.
Rather than throw them on the scrapheap, Merrick has instead restored belief in players who could easily have had their confidence severely dented by the events of last season.
REACTING TO ADVERSITY
Despite their success, the season has been anything but plain sailing for the Jets.
Ronald Vargas had played less than 200 minutes of football when disaster struck in the round three meeting with Brisbane Roar.
The superb Venezuelan marquee suffered an horrific leg break which would keep him out action for five months.
Skipper Nigel Boogaard broke a bone in his knee in early March, missing the last five games of the regular season.
After leaping to the Golden Boot lead with seven goals in the first five games, Irish striker Roy O'Donovan also struck problems, spending two lengthy, injury-enforced chunks of time on the sidelines.
And Argentinean playmaker Patricio Rodriguez has also been in and out of the side, managing 90 minutes just three times.
Through all of that, Ernie Merrick has drawn on his squad depth to not only compensate for the absence of his so-called stars, but almost make their unavailability irrelevant.
WE SCORE FROM ANYWHERE
Rather than relying on one or two players for the bulk of their goals, the Jets have scored from a wide variety of sources.
In fact, no fewer than 14 different players found the net this season, comfortably the highest number in any club across the Hyundai A-League.
No-one scored more than ten goals, but the contributions came from all over the park.
By contrast, Bobo and Adrian Mierzejewski scored nearly two-thirds of Sydney FC's goals, while three players (Besart Berisha, Kosta Barbarouses and Leroy George) combined for 31 of Victory's 45 goals.
The Jets scored at least once in each of their first 25 games and after being held scoreless by Melbourne City and Perth Glory late in the season, they smashed eight past Central Coast in round 27 to chalk up 57 goals for the season, easily a club record.