Next thing you know Pigs might be flying in Newcastle, after local media outlets have begun to release positive news articles about Knights coach Brian Smith. Only just last year Smith probably had to walk down the main street of Newcastle with a SWAT team for personal protection – but now it seems he might actually be getting pats on the back.
Bouyed by strong 2008 NRL results, Brian Smith and the Knights are sitting nicely on the Premiership Ladder. After a year of turmoil and poor results in 2007, Smith chose to wipe the slate clean after the retirement of Andrew Johns. Many of the senior playing group were pushed aside and naturally there was some angst. Players opened up on Smith and so did club backers and supporters.
Smith didn’t have a friend in the world, even close ally and Knights board member Paul Harrogan was starting to lose faith in the new coach.
Fast forward to 2009, with a new playing group, a strong off-season and improved facilities – the Knights have re-emerged and are putting things together on the field. Not only is the heat off Smith to some extent, the Newcastle Herald is even reporting positive articles on his achievements.
Backed by comments from Phil Gould, Warren Ryan, Matt Johns and Peter Sterling – the support for Brian Smith is certainly growing and the possible overthrow from the likes of the White Knights Supporter Group, now seems well and truly in the past.
Gould, Ryan, Johns and SterlingÂ believe such success would have been much tougher had Smith stuck with the sameÂ squad of players he inherited when he started coaching at Newcastle in 2007.
“The Knights needed someone likeÂ Brian Smith, and they’re going to be very grateful for whatever time he spends there,” Gould said yesterday.
“I think he’s totally turned the place around . . . he’s turned around a lot of clubs over the years that were going no good when he got there.”
Gould said Smith had no options but to refresh the club, players and facilitiesÂ and rebuild it from scratch after the retirement of Andrew Johns early in 2007.
“Brian was faced with a team of players that rarely won without Andrew Johns,” he said.
“He would have beenÂ crazy to continueÂ with the identical squad who had already proven they couldn’t win without Joey.
“What’s he done is give the team a whole new fresh start and the club a fresh start. When you make big change, you obviously get people who resist and you open yourself up to criticism.
“Smith’s never shyed away from the tough decisions. The simple choice would have been to play the popularity card, and that way you secure your position and you don’t get hammered in the newspapers.
“But Brian’s always beenÂ comfortable puttingÂ his reputation on the line andÂ handling any criticism from those who don’t understand.”
Gould was not surprised that Smith’s makeover featured a host of unheralded imports.
“You look at Brian’s history, he’s never, everÂ purchased expensive players,” Gould said.
“He’sÂ made some big starsÂ but he’s never bought them.”
Gould labelled the new-look Knights a wildcard in the finals race and said they had already proved a point to Smith’s doubters.
“The critics are silent,” Gould said. “They’ll sit on the fence waiting for him to fall, but I have to laugh, I just know in the end he’ll prove them wrong.”
JohnsÂ confirmed he hadÂ doubts about Smith in 2007 but had since changed his mind.
“I’llÂ admit I had doubtsÂ and say that at times last year I was worried about Smith’s methods,” Johns said.
“Some of theÂ bickering that were coming out of the club, I thinkÂ many hadÂ concerns.
“But there’s no doubt Smithy’s coached for a long time and knows his stuff.
“I saw him after Newcastle lost toÂ the EelsÂ in that golden-point game and I said to him then, ‘I was probably doubting what was happening last year, but I’ve got to take my hat off to you’.”
Johns disagreed with reports that the Knights had in the past relied on a home-grown “culture”.
“You don’t need to be a Cessnock kid, to live up to the Knights’ culture,” Johns said.
“Some of the Knights’ greatest players over the years have come from out of town guys like Tony Butterfield, Robbie O’Davis and Ben Kennedy it goes on and on.
“It doesn’t matter if you come from Maitland or Auckland, if you live up to the principles the club was built on, the supporters will accept you as one of their own.”
Johns said that if Newcastle can emerge relatively intact from the Origin stage of the season “then who knows how far they will go”.
“I think they’ve got every chance to go a long way in the competition,” he said.
Ryan was impressed with the resolve Newcastle showed in beating Gold Coast 13-12 last weekend and believes they are bound for the finals.
“Looking at them now, I think they’ll make the eight,” he said.
“At the start of the year, I didn’t think they would be. I thought it would take him [Smith] a year to get them rolling.
“But he’s done a terrific job . . . I think if you’ve got eyes to see what’s happening, he’s proving a point very steadily.
“What he copped last year [from the media] was malicious and unwarranted.”
Sterling said a play-offs berth was “an achievable result” for Newcastle.
“If you were a Newcastle fan, I think every game this year you’d be proud of them and say that they tried their hearts out together as a team,” Sterling said
“Win, lose or draw, that’s what fans want. They want a team that’s putting in . . .
“The thing that has always appealed to me about Brian Smith and the way he coaches football teams is that he’s prepared to make tough decisions.
“Brian understands that if you make decisions based on popularity, you fail.”