ONCE again it has been a case of so near yet so far for the Jets.
Shanghai night field

For the fourth consecutive season, the A-League finals will kick off with the Jets as spectators, and Sporting Declaration is struggling to comprehend how this has happened.

Where did it all go wrong?

This columnist might not be much of a judge, but in terms of both their personnel and several of their results, I reckon this was Newcastle’s best chance to achieve something since their 2007-08 premiership season.

Instead they have again finished with the also-rans and, all things considered, Newcastle’s long-suffering fans are entitled to regard the end result as their most disappointing season since the A-League kicked off nine years ago – even more anti-climactic than when the Jets collected the 2008-09 wooden spoon.

Let’s reflect on the past four campaigns, for starters.

In 2010-11, when Nathan Tinkler stepped in a month into the season to take over the club after former owner Con Constantine experienced financial difficulties, Newcastle briefly hit a patch of form, only to fade when Francis Jeffers returned to England after his guest stint and injuries to senior players started to take a toll.

The next season was a write-off before a ball was kicked when the Jets signed a marquee player, Jason Culina, who was unable to play because of a chronic knee injury, prompting Tinkler to sack the former Socceroo’s father, coach Branko Culina, less than two weeks before the opening match.

Last season was always likely to be a rebuilding phase, given that Branko’s replacement, Gary van Egmond, had overseen a cleanout of established players, most of whom he replaced with little-known rookies.

But 12 months on, with a full season under their belt, those tyros appeared ready to put their stamp on the A-League.

Throw in the experience of Emile Heskey, Michael Bridges and former Dutch World Cup defender Kew Jaliens, supplemented by the late additions of Joel Griffiths, David Carney and Nick Ward, and surely there was enough quality to claim a top-six position.

To complement the veterans, Newcastle’s roster included some of Australia’s brightest young talents, Adam Taggart, Mark Birighitti and Josh Brillante, plus a host of proven performers such as Ruben Zadkovich, Ben Kantarovski and Zenon Caravella.

At times, Newcastle looked as good as, or better than, any team in the competition.

Brisbane were the runaway minor premiers, yet the Jets beat them in all three encounters, and deservedly so.

Newcastle also had strong away wins against Western Sydney Wanderers, Melbourne Victory and Adelaide.

Yet their confidence crumbled during a mid-season slump that cost van Egmond his job, and in the countdown to the finals they were left to rue two costly results.

First, they led last-placed Perth 1-0 at nib Stadium with less than 10 minutes to go and lost 2-1. The following week, they were 2-1 up at home to Melbourne Victory and conceded a penalty in the dying minutes.

Those two games amounted to five points down the drain. Had they shown more killer instinct and hung on for two wins, they might have finished fourth on the ladder and earned a home game in week one of the finals.

Frustrating as this season might have been, the Jets improved on last year. They collected five more competition points (36 to 31), and improved both their attacking (34 to 30 goals) and defensive (34 to 45 goals) statistics.

They were 15 goals better this season than last, or more than half a goal per game.

All of which makes missing the play-offs all the more puzzling.

The bottom line is the Jets were not consistently good enough.

And the worry for supporters is the uncertainty surrounding their club, on and off the field.

Will next season be a step backwards?

From a playing point of view, Heskey appears certain to return to England, and Bridges has retired.

Griffiths and Carney are off contract.

Taggart, the A-League’s Golden Boot winner, has expressed a desire to head overseas, and who could blame him?

Birighitti and Brillante could well follow.

The coaching position remains up for grabs. Clayton Zane acquitted himself well in an interim capacity, but there has been no confirmation that he will retain the top job.

And then, of course, there is the ownership situation.

There has been speculation Tinkler is looking to off-load the Jets, and if that was his intention, it would hardly be a surprise.

When he assumed control of the club in October 2010, the self-made tycoon admitted he was no student of the round-ball code.

Since then he has invested millions in the club and does not have a single play-off appearance to show for it.

The reported price tags for the Melbourne Heart and Western Sydney franchises will surely have attracted Tinkler’s attention.

If there was a buyer willing to pay a fair price for the Jets, does anyone doubt he would take the money and run?

SPORTING DECLARATION:Jets in a holding pattern