When a relationship comes to a conclusion, it’s nice to be able to say that the decision was mutual. Of course, it’s rarely true.
So more than a few people would have raised an eyebrow when it was announced that Nathan Brown will finish his tenure as coach of the Newcastle Knights at season’s end on mutually agreeable terms.
However, that’s the story coming out of head office, with the Knights releasing a statement that read: “both Brown and Knights Chief Executive Officer Philip Gardner feel it’s the appropriate time to move on with his career.”
Now, there are any number of stories doing the rounds about how Brown jumped before he was shoved.
Word is that there’s a push to have one of the Roosters’ assistants – either Craig Fitzgibbon or Adam O’Brien, maybe both – installed as coach for 2020 and beyond.
Having reportedly been hauled into Gardner’s office twice in the space of seven days, Brown saw the writing on the wall and gave the club the easy out, saying he’d finish up at the end of this year.
Thing is, Brown wouldn’t have required a particularly strong cuppa to read his own tea leaves.
The club, its supporters and the rugby league-mad region of the Hunter have been incredibly patient with the man who is, statistically speaking, the worst coach Newcastle have ever had.
Of course, the reason for said patience is because – as Spiro loves to quote – “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”
Brown arrived to a club decimated by years of mismanagement, having churned through three coaches in 12 months, with the NRL being forced to prop the joint up financially after the debacle that was Nathan Tinkler’s reign.
After seeing what optimism did to his predecessor – Rick Stone lasted mere months as head coach – Brown instead opted to be realistic.
In fact, brutally honest is probably the more accurate descriptor, speaking of a rebuild that would take years, which unfortunately was all too accurate.
However, after two wooden spoons on Brown’s watch, things started to turn around.
Having sacrificed two years to get the roster he inherited under control, 2018 saw significant improvement, as new recruits Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce helped lead the club out of the cellar to an 11th place finish.
Of course, reading that sentence is part of the reason why Brown needed to absolutely blitz this season to keep his gig.
After three years of finishing dead last, coming in sixth place from stone-cold bottom was a step up, but not last isn’t what a club should ever call a successful season.
The Broncos haven’t missed the finals in years and are very much in control of their own destiny for 2019 – yet this year is considered a disaster for Brisbane because a home semi-final isn’t likely to happen.
And the Bulldogs’ 2019 roster was in complete disarray – reportedly unfixable until 2021 – yet they are just one win behind the Knights on the ladder. This is their ‘disaster’ year and the wooden spoon isn’t even possible anymore.
That’s what the Knights need to measure themselves against, especially now they are in a position of financial strength. Bottom of the eight is bad, missing finals has people hitting the panic button.
Of course, Wests had only taken over as owners at the end of 2017, so the club faithful were willing to call 2018 what it was – besides, a step up was significantly better than stagnating at the arse end of the ladder for a fourth consecutive year.
And with the likes of Tim Glasby, Jesse Ramien and – are you shitting me, they actually managed to sign him? – David Klemmer on the books for 2019, the Knights were primed to finally make a legitimate assault on the NRL premiership.
A top-four finish was on the cards, with a finals place the bare-bones requirement not to consider the 2019 season a total write-off.
Yet here we are, with three weeks until the knockout phase of the year begins, and the red and blue are a mathematical chance of being there – win all three remaining matches and they could still be on Mad Monday come September 9.
With new(ish) owners Wests having posted a profit last season, a significant improvement in what were already impressive home-ground attendances, a whiz-bang centre of excellence being built, some serious junior talent coming through the ranks and – most important of all – a top-30 roster littered with representative stars, Brown has run out of excuses.
This year he needed to finally put up and prove that he wasn’t just the man to rebuild the club, but the coach who could finally break an 18-year grand final drought.
Winning it all this year wasn’t ever really happening, but streaks of five and six losses in a row overshadowed that sweet run of victories in the middle part of the season.
Brown may not have lost the dressing room, but – thumping win against the Cowboys aside – it’s become apparent that a new voice is required. The troops simply aren’t leaping to attention at their head coach’s order anymore.
And that’s likely because he’s the same bloke who gave way too many of them a start when they weren’t ready and didn’t deserve to play first grade. That he was so desperate for a circuit-breaker he paid huge overs – the biggest contract for a teenager in rugby league history – to get Kalyn Ponga to the Hunter. That he kept selecting Jesse Ramien when it had become apparent the young centre’s heart was no longer in it for the red-and-blue jersey.
I’m not criticising Brown or saying that someone else would have made better decisions – these were pretty much all calls that were forced upon him, and some have been proven absolutely correct.
But they backed him into a position that had become virtually untenable. He’d been the nice guy one too many times and, whether consciously or not, the players had stopped responding.
So Nathan Brown will depart the Newcastle Knights.
As for what his legacy will be, I suspect he will be remembered fondly.
He was honest, hard-working, respectful and appreciative of the club’s fans and sponsors, and – critically – gave the town a team worth cheering for once again.
Gardner referred to Brown as “one of the most important coaches in Knights history”, before saying “it would be wrong to measure his contribution to the Knights in wins and losses alone”.
“Nathan leaves with our utmost respect and gratitude for the transformational role he has played,” the CEO said.
“What’s more, he leaves with our thanks. When the Knights return to the upper echelons of the NRL, Nathan Brown will be able to take his fair share of the credit.”
In the days to come, there are likely to be rumours and tales of fallings out and backroom deals being done. That this supposedly mutual break-up was actually a one-way decision.
But I’d like to believe Brown is a sharp enough operator to realise he had done his dash as boss of the Knights.
And I know Newcastle will be forever grateful to a man who took on a thankless task and brought pride back to a club that was perilously close to the brink.