Newcastle Jets climbed into second spot on the Hyundai A-League standings on October 14 as they downed Wellington Phoenix 2-1 at the EnergyAustralia Stadium, to the delight of the 11,947 fans present on a gloriously sunny afternoon in the Hunter Valley.
The visitors, like every team in this round of the competition due to international commitments, were missing several first-choice players, and their lack of cohesion, particularly in the fullback slots, was something Newcastle looked to exploit from early on in the piece.
After a quiet opening to the match, the Jets sparked into life in the twelfth minute, when Joel Griffiths evaded a couple of challenges and threaded the ball through for Troy Hearfield, who was only thwarted by the fine covering tackle of Karl Dodd.
The home team regrouped and, four minutes later, came up with the key which opened Wellington?s door wide open. The source was an unlikely one - Noel Spencer, who was starting his first match for his new club. His defence-splitting pass sent Griffiths galloping down the left, and he outpaced the defence before sliding the ball across into the path of another newcomer.
James Holland was also making his Newcastle debut in this match, and he crowned it with a cracking goal, a fifteen-yarder which swerved away from the diving figure of Glen Moss en route to the top right-hand corner of the net from the edge of the penalty area.
It gave Newcastle hope aplenty, but within seconds, their advantage had almost been nullified. Straight from the kick-off, Wellington charged downfield, and a challenge on Vaughan Coveny saw the ball heading towards Newcastle's defence. Their hesitance was pounced on by Michael Ferrante, who burst into the penalty area only to fire inches past the far post with Ante Covic beaten.
It was a miss which would haunt Wellington, as they contrived very few openings in the match, their play generally lacking in spark and creativity, despite the presence on-site of Ricki Herbert, who should have been on All Whites duty this weekend, only for their scheduled World and OFC Nations Cups clash with Fiji in Auckland to sadly fall victim to points-scoring of the political variety.
After Griffiths had fired a twenty-five yard free-kick over the bar, Newcastle defender Stephen Laybutt joined the attack, his presence creating space for Hearfield to exploit Wellington?s right flank once more - Cleberson, who was filling in as a makeshift fullback, was clearly struggling to cope with the pace of Newcastle?s attacks down this wing.
No-one was on hand to turn home Hearfield?s cross, and the home team spurned an even better opening on the half-hour, Griffiths the guilty party. Matt Thompson picked him out six yards out from goal with an inviting cross, but the striker was thwarted by Steven Old?s challenge when scoring appeared easier.
Griffiths didnt have long to wait to make amends, however. Five minutes before half-time, Tarek Elrich played a superb defence-splitting ball through the heart of Wellington?s rearguard, and Griffiths swooped on it in an instant, taking that much time again to turn it past the advancing figure of Moss - 2-0 Newcastle, an instinctive finish securing them what already looked to be a match-winning advantage.
Daniel, for the visitors, and Denni, for the home team, exchanged efforts on goal before half-time, but it was Wellington who felt decidedly aggrieved seven minutes into the second half, when referee Ben Williams, not for the first time this season, made a ruling guaranteed to rouse the ire of the anti-Wellington conspiracy theorists.
Coveny was on the charge just outside Newcastle?s penalty area when he was sent tumbling by Laybutt, the last defender. Jade North, who was also beating a hasty retreat, would not have caught up with Coveny in the circumstances, but the referee thought otherwise, and administered a yellow card to Laybutt for his professional foul.
Half-time substitute Ahmad Elrich fired the resulting free-kick over the bar, but worse was to come from the match official, who later allowed Laybutt to get away with a blatant elbowing of another Wellington substitute, George Paladini, late in the match.
The player he replaced, Vince Lia, sent a fifteen-yarder skidding past the post just after the hour mark, as Wellington looked to make the most of Newcastle's having seemingly eased off after the half-time break. But they were only lulling their opponents into a false sense of security, as a rapid-fire flurry of opportunities soon showed.
In the 67th minute, Griffiths was on the charge, greatly aided by the off-the-ball running of Hearfield, which lured defenders away from the man with the ball. He picked out Tarek Elrich on the right, who rattled the post with a thumping drive which Moss didn?t even move for, so truly was it struck.
Seconds later, Elrich sent Denni steaming through the middle with just Moss to beat. He looked to take the ball round the advancing goalkeeper, but got everything wrong and ended up squandering a golden chance to increase the home team's lead.
Unperturbed, the Jets came again, in the 69th minute. Griffiths and Denni combined, the latter then teaming up with Hearfield and Holland. The last-mentioned's effort was well blocked by Moss, whose goal saw little threat for the remainder of the match.
Instead, the Jets goal became the focus of attention, as Wellington sought a way back into the match. Fifteen minutes from time, Denni cleared off the line from Old, after Cleberson had headed a Daniel cross into the danger zone. Seconds later, Lia lashed a twenty-five yarder past the far post.
Scrambling defence was Newcastle?s saving grace eight minutes from time, as Daniel, Paladini, Elrich and Royce Brownlie were all involved in a concerted raid in the Jets? penalty area. The last-mentioned was so eager to score that he even employed tactics usually ascribed to a far less cerebral code in an effort to benefit Wellington - it earned a few giggles, but no goals.
As it had proved successful on that occasion, Newcastle reasoned that the scrambling defence approach would work again in stoppage time, and so it seemed, as referee Williams appeared to blow his whistle before Old rammed the ball home at the death.
Unbelievably, the official - Williams is fast gaining a reputation as the Rob Styles of the Hyundai A-League (yes, he?s that bad!) - managed to confuse everyone at this stage of proceedings with his signals and general body language.
Chaos reigned over what the actual final scoreline was until it was confirmed some thirty minutes afterwards that Old?s goal had been awarded, and the final outcome was 2-1 to Newcastle, who climb into second spot as a result of this win, with the Phoenix slumping to seventh.