No Jets grudge for Culina

As Jason Culina prepares to return to Newcastle for the first time since his controversial departure he insists he has nothing to prove to the club that sacked him.

As Jason Culina prepares to return to Newcastle for the first time since his controversial departure he insists he has nothing to prove to the club that sacked him - but that doesn't mean he won't be working hard to keep a lid on his emotions.

Culina's steady comeback from the career-threatening knee injury that abruptly cut short his stay with the Jets last year has been one of the stories of the season - and a rare bright spot for Sydney FC as they head north for a match which could define their campaign.

Victory could see the Sky Blues leapfrog the Jets into the top six, while defeat could leave the two-times champions facing a herculean task to make the finals.

Much of the pre-game focus has been on the respective marquee stars Alessandro del Piero and Emile Heskey, but the prospect of Culina walking onto the Hunter Stadium pitch as a visiting player is laden with symbolism.

''Obviously there are a lot of things going through my mind, it's a big game for me personally because of the history,'' Culina says.

''But I don't feel like I've got anything to prove. I've proved to myself, and the people close to me, what I can do. That's what matters. This is just another game I want to do well in.''

For all that, Culina does sometimes ponder what might have been.

''When I joined Newcastle it was one of the most exciting moments of my career, and I really mean that,'' he says.

''One thing was I was getting closer to my family (in Sydney) after such a long time away, and another was that my dad (Branko) was coaching.

''I just wanted to help Newcastle be successful, and I hoped and believed I could play a part in that. I'm always ambitious, I treat my football very, very, seriously. Joining the Jets had a special meaning to me, it was something I was really excited about. Deep down, I wanted to do well because of all of that.''

Culina never got the chance after breaking down late in the 2011/12 pre-season with a second knee injury. Did he push himself too hard because he was so keen to impress? It's a question he often asks himself.

''Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the hard part is I just don't know,'' he says.

''As a player you get guided by certain people, and for me I hate being held back. That's the hunger I've always had. Maybe I did more than I should have, but it's impossible to say. Obviously, in the end, things didn't work out the way they were intended. But I'm a big believer that things happen for a reason.''

What happened was a tortuous 14-month recovery from an osteotomy - an operation that requires the leg to be broken and straightened to relieve pressure on the knee - and an eventual professional comeback with the Sky Blues, the club which supported him through a painful rehabilitation process.

During those long months on the sidelines there were plenty of people writing off Culina's chances of a return to the Hyundai A-League, but four games and 188 minutes into his comeback the doubters have started to drift away.

''Everyone's entitled to have an opinion, but basically I chose not to listen to certain people, and I think I've gone on to prove what's possible if you put your mind to it,'' he says.

''I think I've shown glimpses in the last couple of weeks that I can get back to the levels I want to. But it's going to take time, and there will be ups and downs along the way. I know that if I manage things the right way, if I'm clever about it, then there's no reason why I can't keep progressing.

''Obviously I'm two years older than before the injuries, so I'm not going to be as quick as I was, or maybe as sharp as I was. But you don't lose your football intelligence. With each game, I'm starting to trust my body more, I'm feeling fitter and stronger.

"The only time I felt nervous was when I put my foot on the park in my comeback game (against Adelaide United). Once I took those first few steps, instinct just kicked in.''

Slowly but surely the fiercely-competitive Culina is starting to focus less on his own issues and more on the fate of his team.

''Attitude-wise, this is one of the best bunch of boys I've played with,'' he says.

''What's missing is the killer instinct. In terms of quality, the potential is definitely there. The challenge for all of us is to extract the best from each other. Once we do that, anything's possible, I honestly believe that."