As a long-time Panthers fan, it’s hard to type these words. But the truth is the club just can’t handle success.
The Panthers have always been an unfashionable club. The brown jerseys of the formative years helped forge the Chocolate Soldiers moniker and they’ve never really shaken the reputation of being the unfashionable club of Sydney’s distant west.
The game’s largest junior nursery was always as much a source of pride, as well as frustration, when it couldn’t be converted to on-field success.
A 50-plus-year history has yielded two premierships, each followed by a steep drop-off into mediocrity. It was 1985, when in their 19th year, they finally made the finals.
A maiden premiership eventually followed in 1991, but the club didn’t see September action again until the Super League year of 1997.
When the 2003 premiership arrived, a quick exit followed in 2004, before the club waited six long years until 2010 to play another final.
Incidentally, they played two finals matches that year and lost them both, before another streak of early Mad Mondays was broken in 2014.
A disappointing 2015 was followed by just the second three-year streak of finals action in the club’s history.
And while a flicker of September hope was finally extinguished this weekend, it had been obvious for weeks that the club wasn’t stretching that current streak into a fourth year in 2019.
In 53 years, the club has never played finals in more than three consecutive seasons, and achieved the feat only twice – once in 1989-91 then again over the past three years.
The Brisbane Broncos didn’t miss the finals between 1992 and 2009, and closer to home, the Roosters are preparing to feature in September for the 17th time in the past 24 years.
The common denominator in those two successful eras at the Panthers was Phil Gould. Having started his playing career at Penrith in the late 1970s, Gould returned as coach in 1990 and led them to the grand final that year and the premiership the following year. He then returned to the club in an all-powerful general manager role in 2011.
While there are jokes about his alleged five-year plan – and Gus is adamant there never was one – Gould certainly changed the trajectory of the club. The playing roster, dominated by local juniors, has a strong representation of international and Origin players and the lower-grade teams have won a swag of titles over the past five years.
The all of pointed to a well-run football club on the verge of a premiership, or so it seemed.
That trajectory was irreparably altered in August last year when Anthony Griffin was sacked as Panthers coach – the victim of a falling out with Gould over a perception that he couldn’t lead them to a premiership.
It’s a fair assessment, because while they were running fifth at the time, they were certainly off the pace of the top teams.
But what the current fan base wouldn’t give to be running fifth again? Penrith went two from six the rest of 2018, going out in the second week of the finals. That – coupled with a 10-13 record in 2019 – is a pretty damming indictment of the club’s progress over the past 12 months.
Let’s not also forget the departures of local juniors in Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Waqa Blake, the impending exit of James Maloney and plenty of rumours of strife at the club.
Of course, the most notable departure this year was Gould himself just six weeks into the season, with the explanation that his role had become redundant.
All this in a season where they were widely tipped as a competition favourite back in March. It’s hard to pinpoint where it all went wrong for Penrith, but clearly they’ve made some mistakes.
Was poaching Ivan Cleary from the Tigers really worth the effort to and angst? And with all of Gould’s football knowledge – and even his harshest critics acknowledge his exceptional rugby league IQ – surely a role could have been found to keep Gus around the club.
Yet as a Panthers fan, it feels like the club is heading back to a period of mediocrity where the Panthers sit somewhere between middling and irrelevance.
And that begs the question: why?
Why has a club fallen so far off the pace in just 12 months to a point where few experts will choose them in their predicted 2020 top eights?
For the Panthers, the answer reveals an uncomfortable truth. The club just can’t handle success.