Former Melbourne Victory boss Ernie Merrick did not enjoy a happy homecoming to AAMI Park, at least in terms of the result, when his Newcastle Jets visited Melbourne for the first time this season on Friday night, losing 2-1 to Melbourne Victory.
But the Scotsman still had reason to leave with some spring in his step after his injury-hit team, missing a number of key players, put up a performance which indicated they will be contenders through the rest of the season and a dangerous opponent for anyone in the finals.
He conceded that Victory was the better team, but felt his young players would really benefit from the experience of taking on big-match players in a big-game environment.
"It was really a learning situation for some of our youngsters ... we were without some of our senior players and I think they got some good experience when the pressure was on. I don't think there was any doubt about who was going to win the game in the second half," Merrick admitted.
Merrick believes his side has probably exceeded expectations so far, but will improve later in the campaign when its top men, players like Ronald Vargas and Roy O'Donovan, return from injury.
"I think we have overachieved for a while now. I keep thinking by mid February we should have everyone back and hopefully the two overseas signings that we have made ... we are going to be a very much stronger team in the last third of the league, and that's the crucial time.
"We have Roy O'Donovan coming in, [Patricio] Rodriguez, [Riley] McGree, [Daniel] Georgievski, we have got some good players to come into the squad.
"The good thing about having a successful run in the first 12 or 13 games is that you have points in the bank so you can afford to lose a game here or there and stay in the top three or four.
"I wouldn't have minded a draw, and it's going to be tough next week [against Sydney].
"But I think you have got to be sensible regarding the level of expectation you have as a coach on players because if you expect more from a team like that playing against a very senior, experienced, high-quality team, then you are expecting too much and it becomes negative."
Merrick has wrought a remarkable transformation in the months he has been in the Hunter Valley and says Newcastle is a positive place to be.
"The number of players we have who are very capable and growing with the team, it's an exciting club to be at.
"The experience the youngsters are getting will stand them in good stead when they are coming off the bench. We will have greater depth all round and a rock-solid squad, and I think that is the first time that Newcastle has had that for a long time, so we are making the most of it, but it might cost us points.
"I said at half-time whatever you do don't go out there and try to hold on to a reasonable defeat, losing 2-1. I said I would rather see you lose by more playing good football trying to keep possession moving forward and getting into goal-scoring positions, and they did that really well.
"I would never talk about winning a championship at this stage of the year. My aim is to get into the top six, the players want to be in the top three, and they are working hard to achieve that and we have done exceptionally well."