FROM the outset Wayne Bennett made it obvious he wanted nothing to do with the expectation, which seemed to be growing exponentially by the day, that awaited him at the Knights.
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When the master mentor was interviewed at a luncheon shortly after arriving in Newcastle and asked: "Do you expect to win a premiership while you're up here?", the cocksure Tinkler interjected from a nearby seat: "He'll win four!"
That was exactly the type of hype Bennett was desperate to avoid. The coach told the media after his first training session: "Realistically, a premiership may not be forthcoming in the near future, but more importantly, we just want to build something that will provide them with long-term success ... we've got a plan for here. It won't be in fruition the first 12 months. The first 12 months will just be to make us the best footy team as we can, and not go too quick, because you can get lost in all that."
The bookmakers ignored him, installing Newcastle as title favourites. Declaring "I'm not a rock star, I'm a football coach", Bennett did his best to keep a low profile, avoiding interviews all pre-season. After a 22-18 trial win against Cronulla at Muswellbrook, which followed an 18-all draw with Penrith, Bennett told the small press contingent his were a long way off the standard required. His fears were realised when his former club, the Dragons, notched a 15-14 golden-point win over Newcastle in the season opener.
"We're not a one-game team, and it wasn't about blasting off out here tonight,'' Bennett said afterwards, describing his team as "a work in progress". But he would later admit, in hindsight, that his players were "as flat as tacks" and the 29,189-strong home crowd, and sense of occasion, had "choked them".
The Knights bounced back in round two with an 18-6 win at Shark Park, a result overshadowed by news that Newcastle had signed a Bennett favourite, Dragons enforcer Beau Scott, for four seasons. Scott, however, would not be arriving until 2013, and Bennett felt his squad needed reinforcing immediately.
When young outside back Dane Gagai was sacked by Brisbane, the Knights were quick to pounce. Then, in what seemed a monumental gamble, Bennett threw a lifeline to 32-year-old Willie Mason, in limbo after a brief stint with French rugby union club Toulon. Bennett did not just value Mason's size and aggression. He told those close to him that the larger-than-life former Kangaroo would be a "bridge" who would help the coach forge a closer relationship with his players.
Bennett was concerned his troops were in awe of him, and some were even intimidated. There was a lack of synergy and he saw Mason as a potential solution, saying that despite his reputation as a rogue, he was a "good bloke" who would arrive in Newcastle with a "clean slate".
I'm not a rock star, I'm a football coach.WAYNE BENNETT
The Macquarie Scoprions junior played a reserve-grade game against Illawarra, packing down alongside his younger sibling Rodney for the only time in their careers, then made his top-grade debut for Newcastle off the bench in a 34-14 win against Penrith. But the arrival of Gagai and Mason was not enough to turn results around.
After eight games, the Knights were seventh after four wins and four losses. They were also without skipper Kurt Gidley, who played in only five games before needing a season-ending shoulder reconstruction.
The pressure mounting on Bennett and his team boiled over in their round-nine loss to the Roosters, when Darius Boyd, Newcastle's highest-paid player, broke down in tears at half-time after botching a try with a wayward pass. "Darius is fine", Bennett insisted after the game. Five-eighth Jarrod Mullen, however, offered a contrasting insight: "He [Boyd] wears his heart on his sleeve, and obviously he's trying hard like everyone else. He was a bit upset."
Five consecutive defeats, including a 50-24 trouncing in Brisbane, left Newcastle 14th and Bennett facing the embarrassing prospect of missing the finals for the first time since 1991, when he was at the Broncos.
For Knights fans, there was a sense of disbelief. This was not the heavyweight title contender Tinkler had promised. Bennett had inherited a top-eight team, added a host of quality players and spent a fortune on support staff, yet somehow Newcastle had nosedived down the table.
Backed by a "whatever it takes" mandate from Tinkler, Bennett's response was to identify weak links and remove them. Back-rower Zeb Taia, realising he would not be retained, signed with Catalans Dragons. Hard-charging Richie Fa'aoso was released mid-season, after 99 games for Newcastle, and linked with Melbourne, eventually playing off the bench in their grand final triumph against Canterbury.
Outside backs Wes Naiqama and Junior Sa'u were dropped to reserve grade and told to find new clubs, despite having long-term contracts. Rookie utility back Peter Mata'utia was exiled after one error-riddled game.
Never in Newcastle's history had so many players been tapped on the shoulder in such a short period of time.
Bennett, meanwhile, lined up up veteran hardheads Jeremy Smith (Cronulla) and David Fa'alogo (Huddersfield), two men he knew could add some starch to his 2013 pack.
Five wins in six games between rounds 16 and 21 boosted Newcastle to ninth, and gave them an outside chance of sneaking into the finals. But three consecutive defeats to finish the season left them 12th - after 10 wins and 14 losses - four points adrift of the top eight. "If I've got to take a little bit of pain this year, I've been happy to take the pain ... as I've said before, I haven't come here just to make up the numbers in the competition,'' Bennett said after Newcastle's last-round 18-6 loss at home to South Sydney. "I want to get these guys into a top team and we're doing a lot of things right."
On reflection, the master coach would later add: "I'm pleased we've had the year we had. If we'd got some cheap wins and made the eight, it would have glossed things over. This has laid us a bit bare, a bit raw, and has allowed us to move forward and be better."
It was a massive letdown for fans, who turned up in strong numbers (20,919 average) yet celebrated only five wins in 12 home fixtures. By season's end, many of those supporters were starting to have second thoughts about Tinkler.
Not only had the Knights failed to deliver on his lavish promises, but a succession of dramas at the Newcastle Jets cast the owner in a new, harsher light.
First Tinkler abruptly sacked Jets coach Branko Culina and his son Jason, the Socceroos midfielder, who joined Newcastle from the Gold Coast with a pre-existing knee injury and promptly broke down. Then, after a series of disputes with Football Federation Australian management, Tinkler announced he was handing back the Jets' franchise, regardless of having signed a 10-year licence.
After a public backlash and threats of a multi-million dollar lawsuit from FFA chairman Frank Lowy, Tinkler begrudgingly relented. "Frank Lowy flew to Brisbane to meet with me face to face and I took that as a sign of goodwill," Tinkler said in a statement. "We now have a way forward and I remain committed to ensuring the Newcastle Jets is one of the most successful clubs in the A-League."
But the damage was done. By now the Novocastrian faithful had seen a glimpse of Tinkler's true colours. Worse was to come.
In August, the Newcastle Herald's Donna Page produced a landmark page-one story in which she revealed Tinkler had "left a trail of debt devastating small-business owners from the Upper Hunter to Queensland". Page spoke to "dozens of businesses" who were chasing Tinkler for more than $1 million, publicly confirming what was fast becoming a poorly contained secret - that Tinkler was experiencing serious cashflow problems.
The response of Hunter Sports Group, the Tinkler company formed to oversee the Knights and Jets, was to disparage the Newcastle Herald. "I can assure you there are no cash-flow concerns at HSG," HSG chief executive Troy Palmer said in a statement. "All suppliers are being paid, will continue to be paid and will always be paid. It is disappointing that the Herald continues to drive this smear campaign against Nathan all because the Knights and the Jets have introduced a professional media policy which does not allow the Herald to run the agendas of both clubs."
Attempting to contain unwanted publicity became something of a recurring theme for HSG. What Team Tinkler called negative, the Herald called newsworthy.
In October, when the Herald revealed the Australian Tax Office was chasing HSG for a $350,000 tax bill, they tried to blame it on the previous Knights administration's "poor accounting". Former chairman Rob Tew vehemently rejected this, and told the Herald it was "another example of HSG not paying their debts".
Infuriated, HSG emailed a statement to an estimated 15,000 Knights and Jets members, labelling the story "completely wrong" and "another example of the [Herald's] agenda". HSG threatened to sue, and soon the Herald was denied access to players from both the Knights and Jets.
A week later, when news broke that the Knights had been late in paying players their monthly wages, CEO Matt Gidley said in a statement: "This is an absolute non-issue at the Knights. I have yet to field one phone call or inquiry from an employee or player in regards to this matter."
Then in December, the ATO announced it had initiated wind-up proceedings against HSG as it chased $3.19 million in unpaid tax. It was also reported that the State Government was suing HSG for $600,000 in unpaid stadium-hire fees, and that HSG had been tardy in meeting its $300,000-a-year commitment to the Newcastle Rugby League district competition.
Meanwhile, Tinkler's private jet and helicopter were repossessed by creditor GE Capital, and he was forced to sell his pride and joy, Caulfield Guineas-winning stallion All Too Hard, amid reports that his combined liabilities totalled more than $638 million (although Tinkler's spokesman said the real figure was a "mere fraction" of that amount).
None of which augured well as a deadline loomed for HSG to provide a compulsory annual audit designed to ensure Tinkler was meeting his obligations at the Knights. Palmer indicated HSG could not comply with the audit by the stipulated date and asked for an extension.
The Knights Members Club, entrusted with overseeing the terms and conditions, would have been within their rights to launch the process of removing Tinkler, after what appeared a blatant default. Instead they granted a one-month extension, after which Palmer expressed surprise at what he suggested was a media beat-up.
"I think everyone agrees what a great job Nathan and the team has done and where the club has gone in a short period of time ... it is business as usual and I think we are all on the same page," Palmer said.
At a time when others might have been circumspect, HSG's lawyers then emailed the Newcastle Herald, threatening defamation proceedings if a series of corrections and apologies were not forthcoming. The Herald, confident that every word printed was factually accurate and in the public interest, chose not to reply. No such legal action has ever ensued.
Hard Yards: The Story of the Newcastle Knights. Available to purchase from theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/ $19.95