JETS coach Ernie Merrick won’t be rushing into any hasty recruitment decisions, despite admitting his team are currently “light on” for strikers. Newcastle’s forward stocks were dented on Monday when emerging youngster Joey Champness suffered a broken toe at training, which is likely to sideline him for 10 weeks.
Champness had been a leading candidate to replace Irishman Roy O’Donovan, who will miss up to nine A-League games because of the suspension he incurred in last season’s grand final loss to Melbourne Victory. In addition to Champness and O’Donovan, Andrew Nabbout (Japan) and Riley McGree (Melbourne City) have both parted company with the Jets in the past six months, Nabbout in March and McGree in June. Between them, Nabbout (10), O’Donovan (nine), Champness (five) and McGree (five) scored almost half of Newcastle’s club-record 59 goals last season – 57 in the preliminary rounds, and two in the finals. Merrick has faith in the attackers he currently has at his disposal, led by Socceroo Dimi Petratos and Venezuelan marquee man Ronny Vargas. But he still plans to recruit two more attacking players, including one of “high quality”, and a second goalkeeper before the season kicks off, against Wellington (away) on October 21. “With Roy being out, there’s no doubt that we’re light on for strikers,” Merrick told the Newcastle Herald. “We’ll definitely have one signed before the start of the season, probably two, and we’ll have a goalkeeper signed too. But we’ve got the rest of August, September and part of October, so we’ve got time to do it. “And we’re in a better position than most clubs, who’ve had a fairly high turnover. “We’ve had a low turnover, because most of the boys extended their contracts.” Merrick pointed to the 10 members of last season’s grand final starting line-up who are under contract to reinforce his claim that Newcastle are in a “much stronger” situation than when he arrived 12 months ago, to take over the incumbent wooden spooners. “I think we signed 13 or 14 players last season, but most of them are still here and they all know how to play together,” he said. “So we can step up the strategic work and hopefully be more creative in the front third and even stronger in defence. “Judging by our five [pre-season] games in China and Spain, and then in our FFA Cup win against a very well-organised Gold Coast Knights, we’ve played well against good-quality opposition. “We’ve been creating goal-scoring opportunities and not conceding too many, and that’s the way we go about assessing our preparations for the season.” In Petratos and Vargas, Merrick has two class players around whom he can build his attack. Petratos scored a career-best 10 goals last season, enough to earn selection in Australia’s squad for the recent World Cup. Vargas was restricted to nine games after suffering a horrific broken leg in round three, but Merrick said the 31-year-old was “flying” and looked ready to show his true colours. “Wait until you see Ronny,” Merrick said. “He’s been on fire. The other boys can’t believe how good he is. I didn’t want to risk him in that first FFA Cup game, but I think this season we’ll get to see what a quality player he is.” Along with Petratos and Vargas, rookie Angus Thurgate, new signing Matthew Ridenton, from Wellington, and experienced Jason Hoffman shape as Newcastle’s other attacking options. The Jets have a pre-season trial against Central Coast at Maitland on Saturday week, then face Melbourne City in the FFA Cup on August 29. “I give a lot of freedom to the boys in the front third,” Merrick said. “I don’t restrict them and say: ‘You’ve got to stand on the left wing, on the touchline, and you’ve got to stand on the right wing.’ “Rather than a fixed, set way of playing up front, we play with a lot of movement … I always start with three up front, and I encourage them to be very creative.” Merrick said he was willing to bide his time for the right reinforcements. “Obviously the sooner we can get them out, the better,” he said. “But at least it’s only one or two outfield players. It’s not like signing five or six and having to work out how they fit into our style of play. “And I am looking for quality … if we identify a player, the software available now really allows you to do your due diligence.”