They are outside looking in but the Newcastle Jets are riding a wave of momentum that coach Ernie Merrick believes will not only help his side make the Hyundai A-League Finals Series but do some damage once they get there.
Finals football seemed almost impossible for the Jets a month ago, with a 10-point gap between themselves and the top six.
But three wins – including a stunning 2-0 triumph over Melbourne Victory in Geelong – and two draws in their last five games has the Hunter club on the cusp of the playoffs.
Merrick’s men are currently four points behind sixth-placed Melbourne City, and five off Wellington Phoenix in fourth spot.
While they still have a bit of work to do to sneak into the top six, all the impetus on the run-in appears to be with the Jets.
“There’s a great atmosphere around the place. The boys are keen to make the finals and if we keep playing the way we’re playing I think there’s a lot we can achieve,” Merrick told www.a-league.com.au.
“We don’t just want to make the finals, we want to do well in the finals.
“We’ve only lost one of the last seven games in the league.
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“There’s no doubt throughout the season every team goes through a bit of a down period. We struggled early on in the season, a lot to do with the players available and the schedule, but we’re coming good at the right time.
“We’re looking very strong in the run-in and we have the opportunity to get things right, with much more training and preparation time and without the horrendous schedule we had in January and February.”
Merrick feels the next two matches could ultimately define his side’s season.
Newcastle host their embattled F3 rivals Central Coast Mariners on Saturday night, before an away game against Wellington Phoenix at the end of the month, following the international break.
There is no room for error, and despite the tricky challenge in front of his team, Merrick says a rediscovery of their attacking mojo has confidence high.
“We’re scoring a lot of goals now. We got three against Melbourne City, five against the Wanderers and two against Victory,” he explained.
“The goals are up and that’s what really lifts the team and the fans.
“The next game is a home game [against the Mariners] and we have to take the opportunity in that game.
“If we can keep winning and picking up points that puts us in the best possible position, but Wellington, Adelaide and Melbourne City will be thinking the same thing.”
On paper, Saturday’s F3 Derby at McDonald Jones Stadium would appear a prime opportunity for the Jets secure another vital three points.
Merrick was in the stands on Saturday night as the Mariners’ horror campaign hit a new low in their 8-2 loss to Wellington Phoenix that saw coach Mike Mulvey sacked.
But the Jets boss has been around long enough to know there is no such thing as a sure three points in the Hyundai A-League.
“Nearly every game is a danger game,” Merrick said. “When you are playing against a really good team it’s a danger game, and if you’re playing against a bottom side where you’re expected to walk all over them and it doesn’t happen that way.
“You need 11 players all doing their job and playing at their best. As soon as three or four players are a little down you are going to struggle.”
The Jets will be without Joey Champness, Ivan Vujica and Johnny Koutroumbis for this clash, with the trio away on international duty with the Australia U23 squad.
But Merrick is hopeful that playmaker Ronny Vargas will recover from a hamstring injury in time to be an option off the bench.