Club in turmoil: Knights chairman Paul Harragon. Photo: Stuart QuinnA player in jail, one in a wheelchair, another in a mental health clinic, an owner gone broke and a coach who has quit.
Some clubs wouldn’t survive a season like Newcastle have endured this year but Knights chairman Paul Harragon believes they will come out of it stronger than ever.
“One thing I do know is that this club has gone through an evolution to a point now where it is in the best position ever to be a powerhouse club,” Harragon says.
The man who led the Knights to their 1997 grand final win over Manly, which all but ended the Super League war, has always bled red and blue. The way the city rallied behind last weekend’s fund-raising efforts for Alex McKinnon demonstrated many others in Newcastle do too.
It is unlikely any other club in the NRL is as closely bound to the area it represents as the Knights, whose players helped fans cope with the 1989 earthquake and mine closures of the late 1990s, while feeding off the support of people who lined the road to Sydney to farewell the team before their 1997 and 2001 grand final triumphs.
Yet since the departure of Michael Hagan – another member of the club’s hall of fame – as coach in 2006, there has been a disconnect between Newcastle and the Knights. Fans reacted to not having one of their own in charge, to not having as many local players in the team, and ultimately, to a club they viewed as a plaything for Nathan Tinkler.
However, the “Newcastle” chant that reverberated around an emotion-charged Hunter Stadium on Sunday as a crowd of 26,401 – the Knights biggest home attendance of the season – turned out to support McKinnon, suggested fans feel it is their club again.
“In the history of the club, we have had some tumultuous years. We have had years where we have been close to administration and folding and carried large debts and all sorts of obstacles, but certainly this year takes the cake,” Harragon said of a season that has also seen Russell Packer jailed, Darius Boyd seek treatment for depression, Zane Tetevano sacked, Willie Mason arrested for drink driving, players go unpaid by Tinkler, and coach Wayne Bennett quit to join Brisbane.
“Right from the very start, it has just been incident after incident, but true to Newcastle and Hunter Valley form, people haven’t shied away. In fact, if anything, they have rallied around and we are gaining strength under fairly bad weather. Right now we are about as low as we can be, but with a huge light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light comes not only from the renewed support of fans but the opportunity to rebuild a club that has struggled financially almost from the time it was founded in 1988. It was only kept afloat by the support of fans and funding grants during the Super League war, when both the Australian Rugby League and News Ltd identified Newcastle as pivotal to the battle for control of the game.
Former ARL chief executive John Quayle, who oversaw the Knights admission and was in charge of the game during the Super League war, believes the club is just as important now.
Quayle, who has been engaged by the ARL Commission to help Newcastle through their transitional ownership period after Tinkler was forced to relinquish control of the club two months ago, said the Knights had been on the verge of bankruptcy before the former billionaire took over, but the NRL “would not have let them go”.
“I think back in our time, we never had any doubts that Newcastle had to be a major player in the long-term success of league and we have seen that,” Quayle said.
“You have got the fifth biggest city in Australia, you have got everything that is going forward, and that is why it is important that league moves with the city and again becomes the heart of the city.
“You can have a lot of sporting clubs around but if they don’t have a heart, they don’t work that long.”
Despite the turmoil caused by Tinkler’s three-year reign, Newcastle now have $5.1 million in the bank and the NRL is planning to establish a seven-person board, which would comprise of four independent directors, two representatives of the club’s new shareholders and a nominee from the Knights Members Club.
“The benefits for the club are that there is a clean sheet of paper and a new board and new ownership and new coach,” Harragon said. “In professional sport, you rarely get the opportunity to start from scratch.”
Quayle said the NRL had not ruled out further private ownership for the Knights, but the club would always retain its ties to the Newcastle community.
“There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the structure is set up so that if a partner comes in and then goes out, the club always remains viable,” he said. “That is what we must get right this time.”
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