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  • Writer's pictureJack Twohill

The Newcastle Jets' NPL woes symptomatic of ownership crisis

The Newcastle Jets' perilous ownership situation and a pandemic that hit the A-Leagues harder than most other sports in the domestic market have led to the decline of several parts of the organisation. Throughout the 2022/23 season, ticket sales and crowds saw a slight bump compared to the previous season, which was interrupted by the ongoing pandemic; they were still at their lowest in Jets history when considering all non-COVID-impacted seasons. The lack of engagement from the surrounding community and the inability to find a suitable owner since Martin Lee left the club to rot has now taken full effect, with a considerable impact on the clubs' men’s and women’s youth development sides.

The Newcastle Jets Youth side before taking on Gladesville Ryde Magic in March. (Twitter: @NewcastleJetsFC)


The Jets youth men's setup joined their female colleagues in competing at the Football NSW level in 2020 without the now-defunct National Youth League (NYL) to provide a more competitive base for their youth products to shine. Whilst it has allowed promising youth products such as Kirsty Fenton, now with Sydney FC, and Archie Goodwin to shine and represent their country at a youth level, the most recent FNSW season saw both sides stagnate.


The men’s youth side fell short of promotion from FNSW League Two after finishing behind both UNSW and Nepean FC at the end of season 2023. This result was made all the more painful when Nepean overcame the Mounties Wanderers to gain promotion to FNSW League One. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The attacking exploits of Ezra Palombini and Xavier Bertoncello, who scored 17 and 14 goals across the season, can give the Jets hope of promotion being within their grasp in 2024.

Archie Goodwin after netting against Melbourne Victory in the Australian Cup. (Twitter: @NewcastleJetsFC)

Unfortunately, the same optimism cannot be felt around the NSW NPLW side. The Emerging Jets endured another torturous season in the NPLW, only accruing four points and finishing last with an abysmal goal difference of -70. The most unfortunate aspect of their season is that it is the second consecutive one in which the Jets youth side only managed to secure four points.

But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of their difficult situation is that the Emerging Jets only managed the total whilst having one of the most prolific strikers in the league in Brinley Gentle, who was the third-highest goalscorer with 15 goals, outscoring A-League Women’s stars Holly McNamara and Rhianna Pollicina, who featured in a championship-winning APIA Leichhardt attack alongside Golden Boot winner Ashlie Crofts. The Jets never seemed like a cohesive unit, especially in defence, which led to consistent losses throughout a tough 2023 season.


The lack of bright sparks emerging from the Newcastle Jets setup, except for a few, has the youth development pathways in the Northern NSW region under the microscope, especially the Jets themselves. Newcastle and the surrounding Hunter Region looked to be an endless conveyor belt of international-level talent when looking back at the likes of Ray Baartz, Colin Curran, Sunni Hughes, and Alison Forman, who all emerged from the regional centres of Newcastle and Maitland. Concerning previous Jets talents currently performing on the international stage, only Emily van Egmond and Clare Wheeler have earned this honour.

However, van Egmond only earned her first cap at a senior international level after she was handed an expanded role in the Canberra United setup, with Wheeler's first cap coming after an impressive first season at Sydney FC. Given Newcastle's reputation as a talent-rich region, it was also interesting to discover that 20 years had passed since a Novacastrian had played for the Socceroos. This drought was broken by Connor Metcalfe, who began his footballing journey at South Cardiff but was never involved in the Emerging Jets Academy, and when he eventually ventured south to Melbourne, he received his chance at the big time.


Network 10 commentator, analyst, former A-League champion and Newcastle Jets youth coach Daniel McBreen recently reflected on this lean streak on the Front Page Football Podcast, saying that "back in the day, most Socceroos were from this region."


McBreen indicated the 20-odd-year gap between Socceroos representatives "is criminal; the fact that the catchment goes right up to the border," and, reflecting on his time as the Jets Youth Head Coach amid the current ownership crisis, he stated the program is "always run on a shoestring, there's never enough money there."
 

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McBreen coaching the Newcastle Jets Youth side in 2019. (Twitter: @NewcastleJetsFC)

Whilst the Jets cannot be solely blamed for this drought of internationals from the Hunter Region, the natural professional pathway for young players through the organisation hasn't enhanced the region's ability to produce Socceroos or Matildas-worthy talent. This aspect has undoubtedly been weakened through Newcastle's inability, since the A-League's inception in 2005, to find suitable long-term ownership. Since the FFA stripped local billionaire Nathan Tinkler of his A-League license, the club's operations have been on life-support, even amid a brief renaissance during Lee's short tenure. Unfortunately, the youth sides are increasingly underwhelming in finding and retaining local talent.


Since the NYL was scrapped in 2019, the Jets have yet to have the opportunity to compete against their A-Leagues youth rivals, particularly with the club now securing a second season at the bottom of the Football NSW pyramid. Youth development must be prioritised in finding a suitable owner to replace the current consortium keeping the club alive. Newcastle is too football-rich a region to go another 20 years without international recognition.

The organisation must prioritise promotion into the top NPL Men’s competition in the state over the next three years. A considerable improvement in the Emerging Jets' ranks is of equal importance. Given the championship success and improved financial situation of their closest rivals, the Central Coast Mariners, mainly through their promotion of homegrown talent in recent years, the Jets could and should look towards a tangible improvement amongst their junior ranks to build a more stable and prosperous future, even if the treacherous ownership situation extends.


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