A goal in first-half stoppage time from Nick Fitzgerald and second-half screamer from Steven Ugarkovic has propelled Newcastle Jets past Melbourne City and secured the Novocastrians a 2-1 win in the final game before the A-League enters a COVID-19 enforced suspension.
The three-points moves the Jets to within three of the A-League top-six while City, who were briefly level thanks to a 70th minute Florin Berenguer header, slip further behind league-leaders Sydney FC and closer to the trailing pack of Wellington, Brisbane and Perth.
Roy O’Donovan had the game’s first real chance of note in the games 14th minute when, after being picked out by a driven ball into the penalty area by Dimi Petratos, the Irishman’s contorted right-footed volleyed effort sailed wide.
Connor O’Toole, making his first start for Newcastle after moving over from Brisbane Roar in January, then blasted an effort high and wide in the 24th minute and Nick Fitzgerald had a tame long-range effort comfortably saved by City keeper Tom Glover in the 36th.
As the hosts continued to create more of the game’s chances, O’Donovan’s spectacular attempt to meet an O’Toole and open the scoring with a bicycle kick in the 36th minute went just over the bar of Glover’s goal.
Lachie Wales saught to respond for City when he cut inside from his position on the left flank and lifted a shot towards the far post, but he was unable to bend it back enough to prevent the effort from sailing wide.
But in the end, it was the Jets who had the final word of an opening stanza they had controlled when in the first minute of stoppage time they moved the ball quickly from defence to attack and allowed Fitzgerald to dart past two City defenders and drive home the opener.
But with a spray from fill-in Head Coach Patrick Kisnorbo – the City assistant in charge due to regular gaffer Erick Mombaerts opting to stay in Melbourne as a precautionary measure – City was able to bounce back and restore the game to parity in the 69th minute.
Recently thrust into the contest by Kisnorbo, Berenguer lifted a pass out to fellow second-half substitute Craig Noone on the right and continued to move forward, albeit at a leisurely pace, into the penalty area to meet the Englishman’s resulting cross and head past Jacob Italiano to make it 1-1.
But Ugarkovic, who did a masterful job pulling the strings in the Jets' midfield, made sure that it was the hosts who would go down as the last side to win an A-League game for who knows how long.
Receiving a pass laid off for him by substitute Bernie Ibini, the former Croatian junior international took a touch and let loose with a shot from significant range that Glover, who left a lot to be desired with his effort to keep the ball out, could only palm into his net.
The young City custodian did go some ways to making amends in the following minutes when he superbly saved efforts from Ibini and Fitzgerald but his side was unable to find another leveller as the Jets ran out 2-1 victors.
With news breaking that the footballing powers that be were set to bow in the face of the inevitable and suspend the A-League’s operations in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis sweeping the globe, Monday evening’s contest was a one-part tragedy and one-part farce.
Though its willingness to do so was highly questionable, the A-League, caught between a rock and a hard place, had fought tooth and nail to somehow find a way to continue playing as the rest of the world’s sports shut down in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
But COVID-19 cares little for financial woes, contractual agreements or attempts to lift the spirit of the nation.
Monday’s contest had originally been scheduled to be one of two games played that night, but Perth Glory and Western United’s was suspended in the wake of increasingly stringent steps put in place by Federal and State governments to limit the diseases’ reach.
But despite this cancellation, City and the Jets still went ahead - and the players took the field aware that the game played before the season was suspended with no clear future.
Though the players, professionals that they are, did their best, there was no clear reason why the game was going ahead – seemingly the best reason for it continuing simply being that this was the plan because the new one didn’t commence until tomorrow.
It was perhaps a perfect encapsulation of the situation that has captured not just sporting administrators, but leaders around the world.
Decisions made a week, a day or even an hour ago so quickly overtaken.
Even the Jets shirts, emblazoned with “#FootballForFires” in an effort to promote the planned charity match to aid those affected by summer’s catastrophic bushfires reminded us just how quickly the entire landscape changed for Australian football.
The badge had only appeared on the chests of the Jets’ players on February 18 but now they now advertise a fixture that, while not officially cancelled, has been forgotten by a world in the grips of an unprecedented pandemic.
With the final whistle, football entered a period of hibernation.
Who knows when, or in what form, it will emerge.
Monday evening’s win makes it three from five in Carl Robinson’s tenure at the helm of the Jets and moves the club to within just three points of the A-League top six.
It's been a remarkable beginning to life in Australia for the Welshman, who has done great work with his side in just a short period of time.
It’s highly unlikely but, should the season resume at some point in the next couple of months, the Novocastrians could stage a late run to the finals.
But, even though such thinking is likely folly, it's clear that Robinson’s attempts to integrate himself in Australia go beyond on-pitch machinations.
His move to introduce goalkeeper Glen Moss in the game’s dying moments – knowing that Monday likely represented his last opportunity to record A-League appearance 250 before his retired – showed that he has arrived in the Hunter with a desire to forge a proper partnership with his new club.
So many coaches, masters of their own little kingdoms, would have dismissed or not even considered such a move and single-mindedly pursued the three points despite the unprecedented circumstances the game was taking place in.
In the end, Moss’ introduction didn’t cost his side anything but the display of kindness and respect, in likelihood, bought Robinson significant goodwill with the Jets dressing room and its fan base.
Second City Blues
It’s, along with the Jets late push towards the top six, is almost certainly going to prove redundant but City’s loss on Monday likely puts to bed, tucks in and drives a stake through any hopes the club has of catching Sydney FC atop the A-League ladder.
Mombaerts/Kisnorbo’s side will return to Melbourne eight-points back of the Harboursiders on the A-League table having played three games more than them.
A second-placed finish, which remains nothing to be sneezed at given it would set a record for the club, is likely the best they can hope for should the season prove salvageable at some point.