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  • Writer's pictureJack Twohill

Three things Rob Stanton needs to prioritise at the Newcastle Jets

The A-League Men off-season disruption in Newcastle has steadily increased since their final game of the 2022/23 season on April 29. A lacklustre 2-0 defeat to finals-bound Sydney FC capped off a limping send-off to end-of-season festivities for the Jets.

Former Sydney FC assistant Stanton has helped develop Socceroos Cameron Devlin and Marco Tilio. (Keepup)


Whilst the Jets and at least three other sides were still very much in finals contention heading into the final three rounds of the regular season, an unconvincing 2-1 win at home to Macarthur was followed by a disastrous 3-1 home defeat to fierce rivals and soon-to-be crowned champions in the Central Coast Mariners, all but sealing the Novacastrian side's finals drought, the longest of any team in the A-League Men at the moment. The Jets last played finals football in 2018.


A 10th-place finish in 2022/23 has resulted in some notable departures for the Jets and has seen the club sink further into obscurity regarding ownership and player retention. The loss of energetic fan-favourite Angus Thurgate to Western United, and the attacking talent of Beka Mikeltadze, along with several other contributors such as co-captain Matthew Jurman and Mohammed Al-Taay, were punctuated by Arthur Papas' departure.


Perhaps the only silver lining to this lull in the Jets' history is the hope of a new direction and fresh ideas being provided by new management and different player profiles. Rob Stanton enters the Newcastle Jets head coaching role at a significant point in the club's history. Success in the community, financially, and on the pitch is required for the Jets to prosper again in the A-League Men. FPF looks at three objectives Stanton should be eyeing as he takes the reins in Newcastle.


Utilise local talent and promote from within


Newcastle's affinity with football has steadily declined since the dizzying heights of the championship win in 2008, with a popularity peak in season 2013/14. Per Ultimate A-League, the Jets recorded their highest average crowd of 13,389 that season, steadily declining to 6,152 in the most recent campaign. Being one of the smallest communities represented in Australia's national sporting codes, resonating with the locals is paramount to the sustained success of clubs like the Newcastle Jets. Considering the impact a long-term strategy and the inclusion of young talent being developed has had on the respective fanbases of the Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United, Stanton should be looking to involve as many talented youth prospects as possible. In the club statement announcing the new appointment, Jets CEO Shane Mattiske described Stanton as "a strong believer in the importance of developing youth and is committed to bringing through the talent that is emerging in this region."


Results are difficult to achieve in this period, and Newcastle still needs an owner. Even if the Jets do not make the top six in 2023/24, their recruitment drive should focus on youngsters already at the club and those being under-utilised elsewhere, as other clubs are starting to capitalise through their youth investment. The signing of local goalkeeping talent Zac Bowling and the returns of Jacob Dowse and Lachlan Bayliss is promising, as is the signing of Clayton Taylor. Taylor and Bayliss have enjoyed some sparkling form in the NPL NSW with Sydney FC and the Central Coast Mariners, respectively. The striking talents of Archie Goodwin, which was missing from many Newcastle squads last season, should also be prioritised when considering attacking options. He is a well-known fan favourite amongst the Newcastle faithful. At a young age, he already draws a positive reaction from the home supporters.

Midfielder Lachlan Bayliss returned to Newcastle last month. (Newcastle Jets)


Former Western Sydney Wanderers products Mark Natta, Phillip Cancar, and Daniel Wilmering should also all be given minutes ahead of the upcoming season. The young defenders have a unique opportunity to learn from a former Premier League-level talent in Carl Jenkinson, who served as a co-captain for the Jets last season. Should Jenkinson depart this off-season, the experienced hand of Jason Hoffman, another Newcastle boy, should help settle the club's young players. But it is up to Stanton to give time and opportunities to some of Newcastle's younger talent as they look to use the Steel City to build their careers and put themselves in the shop window of international scouts. This strategy may help put Newcastle back on the map regarding ownership, as a traditional, long rebuild is required to get the embattled club back on track.


Prioritise stability


Before discussing stability, it is important to remember that Stanton is just a head coach. Expectations of Stanton's ability to guide the Jets through the rough seas of the current ownership model should be kept modest and achievable until a more viable financial solution can be found for the club. Arthur Papas' stint at the club, whilst exciting, was inconsistent, with form difficult to maintain due to Papas' style of football. In a way, Papas was a victim of his potential, as his philosophy would be desired at many A-League Men clubs but was ineffective in the Hunter. Newcastle's inability to take control of matches was mostly down to a leaky defence, which conceded 45 goals throughout the 2022/23 season. Playing champagne football is difficult when the back office is under significant and prolonged pressure.


Stanton has emerged from a Sydney FC setup that has mostly stuck to a stable and sometimes unflattering style of football. Having served as the youth coach before being made an assistant under Steve Corica in 2020, Stanton has been a part of the most sustained level of excellence the league has ever seen. Since 2015, Sydney FC has won three championships, including back-to-back titles in 2019 and 2020, whilst also being premiers on three occasions. It should be noted Sydney had access to some of the best-imported A-League talent in that era, with the likes of Bobo, Milos Ninkovic, Alexander Baumjohann, and Adrian Mierzejewski being the foundations of that success. But it was also built on sound footballing principles that were often simple yet effective.

Stanton (right) with Trent Buhagiar during his time at Sydney FC. (Sydney FC)


As a youth coach, Stanton oversaw an extremely successful youth academy, winning the now defunct Y-League twice, with a championship secured once in 2015/16. He also guided Sydney FC's youth side to an NPL 2 NSW championship in 2016. During this time, Stanton was commended for developing players such as George Timotheou and Charles Lokolingoy to a level where they began garnering interest from the Sydney FC first team. Stanton was subsequently awarded the Football NSW Coach of the Year Award in 2016, celebrating his success in developing a new generation of talent in the state.


Having been a part of that sparkling era of Sky Blue dominance both at a senior and youth level, Stanton may seek instant appraisal and success at the Jets. But such thinking may be, at the very least, wishful, if not a completely unrealistic expectation of Stanton's first stint as a head coach of an A-League Men outfit. Newcastle could utilise a straightforward set-up for 2023/24, which may be undesirable for many fans of the Papas style. Stanton was well-known at a youth level for his fast and furious attacking style in the NYL and NPL. But, should Stanton lean towards Socceroos manager Graham Arnold and his 'Arnieball' approach, it may help develop a more solid side and allow for a steady rebuild within the club's ranks.


With Stanton's history in youth football and his playing experience in the National Soccer League and NPL NSW, his impact may not be restricted to only the pitch. Rather, he could help build a more dependable future should Jets fans buy into the process. Stanton's success at the Jets may not be measured in silverware or even finals appearances, at least for the first year or two. It should be assessed in the reorganisation of pathways in the region, incremental progress on the pitch, and creating an outfit that is more difficult to play against rather than an expansive attacking team that is leaky defensively.


Develop a relatable attitude


It isn't easy to gauge the current ambitions of the Newcastle Jets. After it was revealed previous owner Martin Lee had failed to fund the club since 2019, before Newcastle's license was stripped by Football Australia in January 2021, a consortium of A-League clubs saved the region's only professional football side from extinction. This move coincided with the appointment of Chief Executive Officer Mattiske, who has stabilised the club over the past two years.


However, the impact of the pandemic still lingers in the background of the Jets' hunt for new ownership and investment. Newcastle was arguably the most impacted by the low crowd numbers and lack of engagement in the A-League Men throughout the pandemic, and this period had massive ramifications around the league. However, in an address to fans after season 2022/23, Mattiske remained adamant the Jets were on track to emerge out of this difficult situation.


Mattiske noted an 11% membership increase, with average crowds improving in the most recent A-League Men season and local sponsors driving new investment into the club, indicating Newcastle had "built a partnership family that is equal to any regional club." In the same statement, Mattiske said there were several suitors to take over the embattled club.

Stanton has a unique opportunity in his first year as an A-League Men head coach to assist in this troubling process. Newcastle's relatively small yet passionate fanbase has always bought into coaches and teams that reflect the region's affinity with sport. Though not quite a major metropolitan centre, Newcastle has not forgotten its roots as a working-class, blue-collar steel town that places character above all else when considering its teams and, by extension, the coaches they support.


Stanton seems to understand this attitude, as indicated in his first interview as Jets head coach.


"It's a passionate place, similar to when I played in Wollongong. I want to engrain myself in the community and get to know people," Stanton said.

 

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Whilst it has been mentioned how including young talent is important for the Jets' future as a football team, relatability is utilising young players who are known to the local community and have stories the fans and potential investors can buy into. This aspect seemed to waiver during the final months of the Martin Lee era, towards the end of 2020. The disconnect between the fans and the organisation was pervasive. The affinity from Novacastrians to the Jets organisation was steadily rebuilt under Papas and is one of his biggest accomplishments during his two-year stint at the club. Stanton has acknowledged his predecessor's work and will do well by continuing to get fans onside with an honest, open, and considered discourse, particularly towards those who accept the Newcastle Jets as a major part of their lives.

 

Should Rob Stanton get these three finer points right, even with a lack of results under difficult circumstances, Newcastle may see investing in Stanton as the right way to progress into happier times. With the investment from Sydney FC, the Western Sydney Wanderers, and Macarthur beginning to waiver as the consortium currently propping up the Jets is in danger of falling apart, Stanton will do well to promote the Jets in collaboration with boardroom staff and put the club in the shop window to be sold. With an ownership solution nowhere in sight, a manager with a positive outlook and a commitment to what locals see as most important to their Newcastle Jets may turn the tide during this worrying and drawn-out ownership crisis.


When considering the problems that need to be solved in Newcastle, what the community demands from a coach and the ambition he has shown throughout years of youth and senior football management, Stanton might be a success story waiting to be written.


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