ARE the Newcastle Jets a good team who are underachieving or a mediocre team who overachieved earlier in the season?
Trying to get a handle on the Jets is a confounding business, because they are the chameleons of the A-League – nobody seems to be quite sure what their true colours are.
Between rounds five and nine, they won four of five games and occupied third rung on the table.
At that stage it seemed reasonable to assume they still had scope for improvement, especially as marquee player Emile Heskey had scarcely kicked a ball because of injury.
Yet, three months on, that halcyon run remains the high point of their campaign.
Victories since then have been few and far between, there has been an abrupt change of coaches, and with seven regular-season games remaining, the Jets find themselves four points adrift of the top six and in danger of missing the play-offs for a fourth consecutive year.
Nothing encapsulates Newcastle’s schizophrenic character more concisely than their contrasting records against Brisbane and Sydney.
The Roar are four points clear at the top of the table yet have lost all three games against the Jets, who in turn have lost their three clashes with the equally enigmatic Sydney.
Almost as mysterious is the fact that Newcastle perform better on the road than they do on their own home turf.
In 10 games at Hunter Stadium, they have won only twice, taking just two points from a possible 18 in their past six home appearances.
But of their 10 forays into enemy territory, four times they have returned victorious and once with a draw – a more than respectable return.
Given their position on the points table and their fadeouts at the business end of the past three seasons, many will have already written the Jets off as also-rans who simply do not warrant a berth in the play-offs.
Sporting Declaration, for one, has not given up on them just yet. I think there might still be some twists and turns before this tale is told.
I can’t help going through Newcastle’s squad, player for player, and wondering why they are languishing in eighth position and shaping as a genuine chance to collect the wooden spoon.
Sure, they have encountered some setbacks.
Injuries have prevented Heskey from putting his best foot forward. Indeed, the former England target man is yet to score a goal.
There have also been untimely suspensions, Young Socceroos commitments, controversial refereeing decisions and – presumably – a gradual breakdown in the relationship between former coach Gary van Egmond and some of his players.
But enough of the excuses.
The bottom line is that the Jets have been so inconsistent this season that they do not deserve to be in the top six – at this point in proceedings.
There is, however, still time for them to salvage this season and give their fans reason to cheer.
Of their remaining seven games, I’m guessing that five wins would almost guarantee qualification for the play-offs. Four wins would probably be enough.
It is hardly Mission: Impossible.
The Jets just need to start playing to their potential, week in, week out, starting tomorrow against Western Sydney Wanderers.
Other than Ben Kantarovski, who is yet to return from a knee injury, Jets coach Clayton Zane will have pretty much his best line-up available.
On paper, at least, the new strike force of Heskey, Adam Taggart and Joel Griffiths looks formidable.
Throw in the passion of Ruben Zadkovich, the experience of Netherlands international Kew Jaliens, the energy of youngsters Josh Brillante, Craig Goodwin and Andrew Hoole and the safe hands of goalkeeper Mark Birighitti, and I am still optimistic the Jets can make a belated charge for the finals.
Zane’s troops are now cast in the role of giant-killing wildcards, and Novocastrians have traditionally embraced the underdog tag.
With backs to the wall, nothing to lose and everything to gain, it is time for the Newcastle Jets to show us what they are made of.