Newcastle Jets 0 Western Sydney Wanderers 1
Youssouf Hersi and Andrew Hoole eye the ball. Photo: Getty Images
It was hardly a crisis for the Western Sydney Wanderers but after three weeks without a win, a steadying night was required.
Yet heading up to Newcastle to face a side who had won four of their past five meant this was hardly a banker. They had to be smart about it.
Over the subsequent 90 minutes, the Wanderers rolled up their sleeves and put in a dogged, dour display. All they needed was a goal.
Taylor Regan takes on the Wanderers' defence. Photo: Getty Images
Eventually it came, even though the circumstances were controversial after a suspected push from Labinot Haliti on Jacob Pepper as he headed Shinji Ono’s cross back across goal.
Another former Jets’ forward, Mark Bridge – so adept at torturing his former clubs – was the beneficiary. That’s his sixth goal against the club he scored the winner for in the 2008 grand final.
From there it was simply a matter of holding firm but while Newcastle never stopped trying, they lacked invention, and when one Wanderers’ player was beaten, another had his back.
The slow-turning meat grinder of last season was functioning perfectly once again.
“I’m pleased for the players because they’ve performed well and haven’t got the rewards in the last three weeks. There’s a lot of belief in that dressing room,” said coach Tony Popovic. “I’m really pleased that they performed well again in difficult conditions – it was really windy out there at times – against a team full of confidence. It was a fantastic win.
“Getting that goal in the first half made it that bit easier. We defended very well as a team and when we went forward, we looked dangerous.”
At full time, the Newcastle players sunk to their knees in bewilderment. They need to study the tape of this one. There’s lots of lessons there for Gary van Egmond and his players.
“They gave their heart and soul and really tried as much as they could,” he said. “Maybe in that final third we lacked that right decision or pass or touch. We started very well and controlled the game but we didn’t make enough clear cut chances and you have to against this team. Unfortunately, we paid the price.”
Hunter Stadium will always hold a piece of Wanderers’ folklore, for it was where they won the league last season, capped with a thumping 3-0 win in front of 7000 of their travelling fans.
Only half made the journey north on this occasion but their presence was hard to miss. It is a credit to the Wanderers’ faithful that all matches in this state, be they home or away, their voices stay the loudest.
Besides, with five in their starting side who previously called Newcastle home, it was familiar territory for fans and players.
One major blow for the Jets came even before kickoff with gun forward Nathan Burns ruled out after his knee swelled after training on Friday.
Knee soreness also sidelined marquee striker Emile Heskey, meaning Newcastle’s front line was spearheaded by Adam Taggart, James Brown and Andrew Hoole: a trio boasting a combined age of 63. When Brown was substituted off after an hour for James Virgili, it dropped to 61.
While the Jets dominated the early exchanges, they were arguably quite lucky to have their full complement on the field when Mark Birighitti handled the ball outside the box.
But karma would redeem the Wanderers when Ono supplied a deep cross that Haliti nodded to Bridge, who looped his header over Birighitti.
However, nobody expected the goal to be given, as Haliti clearly impeded Pepper in the build up. However, referee Jarred Gillett ignored the protestations. Bridge could have even doubled the advantage when his header met the crossbar on the stroke of half-time.
Newcastle were again on top in the second half – their possession still hovering around 60 per cent – but they simply couldn’t unlock the stubborn opposition.
Indeed, if there is one team you don’t want to fall behind against, it’s one coached by Tony Popovic. The gaps provided by others are seldom offered by his team.
Newcastle were denied a penalty claim when Taggart was outmuscled by Matthew Spiranovic but replays showed the striker simply failed to hold his ground.
That seemed a rather fitting metaphor for the home side’s evening.