This is Part 4 of my series speaking with fans from all NRL teams to see what it’s really like to support their team. This week, the Parramatta Eels.
They were a powerhouse of the 1980s, a decade that produced four grand final wins, and legends like Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny and Ray Price.
Many expected the premierships to just keep coming. Then… nothing.
Board-room dramas. Retention issues. A coach surrounded by doubt. A team who can’t finish off the job.
And behind it all, the loyal blue and gold army. A fan-base with a lot of frustration and heartbreak, but never-ending hope.
I spoke with two of those loyal fans, Andrew and Matt, to get their thoughts on their beloved Parramatta Eels.
I began with the obvious, why they just can’t seem to win a grand final.
“It’s a combination of things,” Andrew began.
“We have had too much infighting at board level over the years, which creates instability, and an inability to identify and hold onto local talent.
“We have been much more consistent over the last few seasons but haven’t performed in the big games.”
Matt added: “I have come back to this question many times, and I still cannot give a definitive answer. I guess we will just keep taking the abuse until we hold up the trophy.”
I asked what the best and worst things were about being an Eels fan. Matt’s worst was obvious.
“Not winning a premiership since 1986. Best thing, it’s going to be a massive celebration when we do win! Also, the rivalry of the ’80s with the Bulldogs still keeps me proud of the club.”
Andrew added: “[The best thing is] being part of a huge army of passionate fans and knowing that no matter what happens, we will all be there supporting them again next season.
“The worst is never being confident in the big games and watching local talent being allowed to leave and flourish elsewhere.”
With many headlines surrounding the board, recruitment and retention, I was interested to get their thoughts. Andrew went first.
“We have made many mistakes over the years and the infighting has really hurt us. I believe we are moving in the right direction, but still need the ex-players more involved with the club.
“We just need everyone working towards the same goals and not trying to make personal gains.
“In terms of Reed Mahoney, I’m very disappointed. Mahoney is a good influence on the field, strong defender and yet to reach his prime. Add to that of course letting Isaiah Papali’i and Marata Niukore go.”
Matt feels the same.
“Since the board was replaced in 2016 it has been a difficult rebuild. I believe that the recruitment process needs to be looked at as we don’t seem to be able to retain a lot of our juniors that have talent. We get them to the club, build them up and then they go.
“Losing Reed Mahoney is a big loss. He was getting better and growing in confidence until his injury. I think the NRL needs to look at how they manage players and clubs in the way they negotiate but critically, when they can start their negotiations.”
In the semi-final against the Panthers, there was an incident with the Penrith trainer that stopped Parramatta’s momentum.
Graham Annesley also admitted after the game that there should have been a penalty given when Jarome Luai pulled Mitch Moses back, and the Eels ended up losing by two.
I asked if the guys thought they were robbed or if Penrith were too good on the night. Matt responded quickly.
“We were robbed. Penrith are a great team, but every club is always trying to get the extra edge and pushing the boundaries of the rules in every game.
“I don’t think it would have been a direct order from Ivan Cleary, but I do believe that it was a deliberate act from the Panthers that paid off for them.”
“That call definitely stopped our momentum,” added Andrew.
“There was no immediate danger to the player. It set us back, but I believe if we had taken some earlier chances, we would have been ahead at that stage anyway.
“With the Moses incident, he clearly pulled him back, but they are the calls that sometimes don’t go your way. I think we went away from what was working for us early in the game and became too predictable”.
I asked if Clint Gutherson is as good as he is made out to be.
“YES!” Matt exclaimed.
“The enthusiasm he plays with is 100 per cent and his attitude and respect for the football is amazing.
“I do think that his maturity lets him down with his leadership amongst the team, you can’t expect the other players to aspire to what you ask of them if you cannot deliver the message with strength and confidence.”
“The ‘King’ is the heart of the team. He never stops trying and expects a high level of effort from the other players.
“He plays a major role in our attack and organises our defence. I think he is our best player and is still getting better. I’m unsure on the different hairstyles he comes up with, but we need him if we are going to win”.
After checking off the captain, I wanted to see if they thought Brad Arthur was the right coach for the club.
“Yes,” Matt said confidently.
“He has basically rebuilt the club since he was appointed in 2014 and knows that it’s all about the long term, and now he has another two years to prove it.
“BA will be the Craig Bellamy of Parramatta.”
Andrew agreed but knows he has work to do.
“I think BA is the right coach and he bleeds blue and gold. He has done a good job and provided a level of consistency we haven’t had for a while.
“However, I think he needs to show over the next two seasons that we can make the step to join the top-shelf teams.”
I asked who their favourite Eels players were, past and present. Andrew’s was Luke Burt.
“He wasn’t the fastest or biggest, but he played hard every game and could find the try line.
“Currently, it’s Junior Paulo. He is so skilful for a big man, has a big engine and always takes the big runs off their line.”
Matt agreed with Paulo.
“He is an absolute workhorse and is finding his feet as a senior leader at the club. Hopefully they can hold onto him with a contract extension.
“Past favourite was Nathan Hindmarsh. He had a great never-give-up attitude.”
I asked their thoughts on Parramatta joining the NRLW next season.
“Love it,” Matt said.
“Great to have Dean Widders back at the club as the coach. The women are fearless and sometimes go harder than the men.
Andrew added: “I think it is a no brainer. I can’t believe it has taken this long, given the junior nursery the Eels have.
“The clubs, along with the NRL, need to put some more effort into getting a sustainable competition up and running, as well as investing in a pathways system for all the juniors. The standard of the competition so far has been great, and the State of Origin was amazing.”
And finally, if the guys could say anything to their team, what would it be?
Matt was straight and direct.
“Stay focused, believe in yourselves and the coach.”
Andrew had a bit more to say.
“2022 is the year of the Eels, the fans are behind you and it’s time to release the pressure. We have shown over the past few seasons that we can match it with the best, and we will have a very settled squad for 2022.
“I would also say to Mitch Moses and Dylan Brown that they need to take the line on more often.”
Every year is going to be their year, and then it’s not.
But as Andrew and Matt have confirmed today, despite any dramas the club may be facing, the Parramatta Eels fans just love their club, and will never stop believing that the next premiership is just around the corner.