Game changers: Hunter Sports Group

Newcastle’s optimism was more than warranted when Nathan Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group took the city’s national football clubs under its wing. Robert Dillon looks at the state of play.

SOMEHOW one poignant moment seemed to encapsulate an entire season.

Ten minutes after Saturday’s game at Hunter Stadium, TV and radio interviews finished, Knights skipper Danny Buderus turned towards the sheds.

He was the last player still on the field.

As he glanced up to the tunnel, the little champion noticed the handful of overhanging diehards, mainly kids waving flags and waiting for a high-five.

Instantly he looked at the turf and shook his head, dejection personified, before trotting to the sideline.

Supporters may not suffer Buderus’s bumps, bruises and broken bones.

But rest assured they were sharing his heartache.

Buderus did not seek a release from a contract with Super League champions Leeds Rhinos for this.

In his worst nightmares, he could not have imagined such a scenario unfolding.

Nobody could. It is quite simply unbelievable.

TO fully appreciate the magnitude of the letdown a community is feeling, you had to have been at Newcastle Entertainment Centre on March 31 last year when 97 per cent of Knights members voted in favour of selling their financially stricken club to Nathan Tinkler.

The ballot result was greeted with a resounding roar of approval, followed by the famous ‘‘New-cas-tle’’ chant, which sent shivers down the spine of even this cynical old hack.

The prayers of thousands had been answered, so it seemed, and the future of Newcastle’s rugby league flagship guaranteed.

After surviving since the club’s 1988 inception ‘‘on the smell of an oily rag’’, to borrow a line from former Knights chairman Michael Hill, the club now had the financial firepower to become perennial heavyweights.

That the Tinkler bid was so comprehensively accepted was no great shock.

The Knights board of directors had endorsed it, once Tinkler eventually agreed to their terms and conditions.

Club legends gave it their approval, as did incumbent coach Rick Stone and skipper Kurt Gidley. The club’s founding fathers, Leigh Maughan and Hill, said take the money and run, as did then Member for Newcastle Jodi McKay.

Popular opinion suggested it was a no-brainer.

Admittedly, the members would no longer own the club they supported, but they were assured repeatedly it would be in safer hands. A last-ditch alternative, to be known as the patron’s trust and funded by multimillionaire Andrew Poole, attracted little support.

And it was not just Tinkler’s fortune that lured the members. It was the vision, delivered with all the pomp and ceremony of a political campaign.

For weeks leading into the historic vote, Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group commissioned an advertising blitz and a series of information nights to spruik their plans to key stakeholders.

Truth be told, such a sales pitch was probably not even necessary to obtain the 75 per cent majority needed for privatisation.

That was because Knights fans were already enviously admiring their Jets counterparts.

Six months earlier, Tinkler had stepped in at the 11th hour to save the Jets from extinction, when former owner Con Constantine experienced financial difficulties.

Soccer types could not believe their luck as the Jets proceeded to announce coup after coup, all bankrolled by a man who admitted he was no great fan of the round-ball code.

Tickets were spectacularly discounted to stimulate game-day support. David Beckham and the LA Galaxy came to town, and then the Jets signed Socceroos playmaker Jason Culina to a three-year contract.

A netball Test and a financial lifeline for Surfest soon followed.

Then Newcastle’s own real-life Santa Claus turned his attention to buying the Knights. And the big fella certainly talked a good game. As he said in January 2011: ‘‘The Tinkler Sports Group will provide a world-class team on and off the field, which will make the Hunter the envy of the rugby league world.

‘‘We are investing in the Knights for the community, our children and above all because it’s time that Newcastle won another premiership ... anything is possible for the Newcastle Knights if we dare to dream.

‘‘The Newcastle Knights is a genuine community asset that belongs to all of us.’’

Possibly some were wondering if this was all too good to be true.

But when you are among the 3 per cent minority, nobody tends to take much notice.

IN retrospect, the warning signs were there. In flashing neon. Most just chose to ignore them.

Anecdotal evidence seemingly contradicting Tinkler’s image as a philanthropist with a heart of gold had already surfaced, long before he bought the Knights.

Controversies in the horse-racing industry led to his Hunter Valley stud Patinack Farm earning the unflattering ‘‘Pat’n’sack’’ nickname.

And while his Knights takeover was overwhelmingly approved by members, the negotiations were hardly amicable.

Twice the Tinkler camp leaked details of his privatisation offers to the Newcastle Herald, placing Knights officials under enormous pressure, then walked away from the table and publicly castigated Knights chairman Rob Tew and CEO Steve Burraston.

In Tew and Burraston, Tinkler encountered two bulldogs who refused to be intimidated but eventually he prevailed, as rich, ambitious men tend to do.

In the process, he gave Knights fans a sneak preview of what they could expect for the next 10 years.

On February 17 last year, Cronulla called a press conference to announce the re-signing of Kade Snowden for two more seasons.

But just hours before Snowden put pen to paper, his phone rang.

It was Tinkler on the other end, asking him to hold fire. Snowden agreed.

By this stage, media were waiting at Toyota Stadium to file their reports, only to learn from naturally stunned Sharks officials that they had been gazumped.

Most remarkably of all, Tinkler did not even own the Knights at that point, or seek the club’s approval to contact Snowden, and a few days later actually withdrew his bid to buy the club in a fit of pique.

Tinkler had made a promise to Snowden. But there was no guarantee, if his privatisation bid failed, that he could deliver.

Not to mention the complete disregard he showed for Cronulla.

Tinkler remained unapologetic.

Eventually he signed Snowden for four years – at $400,000 per year – and declared he would become ‘‘the best prop in the world’’.

And Tinkler was merely warming up.

In quick succession followed the signing of the game’s most successful coach, Wayne Bennett, as well as Darius Boyd, Buderus, Timana Tahu, Alex McKinnon and Adam Cuthbertson.

Bookmakers installed Newcastle as 2012 premiership favourites.

Bennett scoffed but Knights officials were not about to argue. Fans were queuing to buy cut-priced season tickets on the back of such hype.

IT was about this point in our stroll down memory lane that a ruthless side of Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group emerged.

To accommodate the influx of incoming Knights players, coaches, support staff and administrators, HSG started cleaning out the incumbents.

Even players still under contract were encouraged to move on.

Almost half Rick Stone’s squad were punted, six of whom were signed up for 2012 or beyond.

Stone was retained as Bennett’s assistant, but on an improved salary.

Stone’s coaching staff were cut but soon found good jobs at rival clubs.

Most observers took the view that this was a necessary evil.

A new coach was coming in and naturally he would want to bring players with him.

And given the new coach had won seven premierships, nobody was inclined to doubt his judgment.

But this was extraordinary.

As one Knights insider told me last year: ‘‘That’s not what this club has been built on.’’

Nonetheless, the Knights qualified for the finals, but in lieu of the turmoil caused by Bennett’s cleanout, and the mid-season departure of Cory Paterson and Beau Henry, it could be argued that Rick Stone’s men reached the top eight despite Tinkler, not because of him.

BY the time the dust had settled on the 2011 NRL season, the excitement in Newcastle was at fever pitch.

Fans of both the Knights and Jets had every reason to assume triumphant seasons were just around the corner.

Then Jason Culina limped off the training pitch and all hell broke loose.

Months earlier, when the Jets announced Culina’s deal, the world-class midfielder was on crutches. Minor surgery, we were told.

It was anything but.

Initially when they learned Culina would need a further, season-ending operation, HSG management backed him to the hilt.

That’s football, was their attitude.

But the deeper the Newcastle Herald dug, the more perplexing the whole affair became.

For a club to sign a player, on crutches, uninsurable and with career-threatening injury to a $2.65million contract suggested, at the very least, a lack of due diligence.

And remember that Jason Culina was not just any other player. He was the coach’s son.

Just when HSG appeared content to bury their heads in the sand, Tinkler snapped.

On October 4, just hours after Jets coach Branko Culina spoke at the A-League season launch, he was summonsed to meet Tinkler in Sydney and sacked.

HSG said they intended to have Jason’s contract ‘‘set aside’’.

Both Culinas subsequently accepted payouts on the basis of confidentiality. No real explanation has ever been offered for Branko’s dismissal.

So before a ball had been kicked, Newcastle’s season was in disarray. They subsequently finished seventh of 10, two points out of the play-offs, after Gary van Egmond returned to take the reins.

Van Egmond’s decision, sanctioned by HSG management, to sideline rugged midfielder Kasey Wehrman for half a season after an indiscreet interview did not help their cause.

But if the Jets showed little fight on the pitch, it was a different story off it.

First they fell out spectacularly with Football Federation Australia, launching a legal challenge after alleging the game’s governing body was culpable for the Jason Culina fiasco.

Then came the revelation that Tinkler had been asked to pay a $3.5million ‘‘acquisition fee’’ to buy the Jets’ franchise, which was not standard for all clubs.

HSG simmered for months, complaining bitterly. The discontent came to a head on April 9, when Tinkler handed back the Jets’ 10-year franchise licence, citing ‘‘irreconcilable differences’’ with FFA.

He did not attend the press conference.

‘‘You can’t sign a contract and walk away from it. That’s simply not the way business is done,’’ FFA chief executive Ben Buckley warned.

‘‘The football community should hold him [Tinkler] to account, and we will hold him to account. Clubs and teams are not playthings, which is why we will vigorously pursue HSG, whatever it takes.’’

A month later, after a furious backlash from fans and sponsors, Tinkler met with FFA supremo Frank Lowy and compromised.

He agreed to continue funding the Jets, although there are concerns it may be at a reduced budget.

ALL of which brings us to the men in charge. As the original supercoach, the late, great Jack Gibson once famously declared: ‘‘Essentially a winning football team begins with good front-office administration.’’

Tinkler, who the Newcastle Herald revealed last week has relocated his family to Singapore and is regularly overseas and interstate, is rarely in the front office.

Presumably he stays in close contact and has the final say on big decisions. But the day-to-day machinations of running the club are delegated.

Tinkler’s right-hand man is HSG chief executive Troy Palmer, an accountant and former chief financial officer at Bluetongue Brewery, who five years ago jumped on the Tinkler express after approaching him on spec.

Palmer’s right-hand man is commercial director Richard Fisk, whose biography on HSG’s website declares he has worked in ‘‘a variety of roles including managing editor New York Times European sporting division, sports director 2WS, 2GB and a variety of sporting shows plus managing editor of Big League magazine ... [and] a variety of senior marketing and management roles in sport including over 10 years as general manager marketing and media at the Sydney Roosters.’’

Surprisingly, it makes no mention of his previous job, when he was chief executive at Cronulla.

HSG also signed a host of highly credentialled commercial, marketing and ticketing specialists with backgrounds at sporting organisations, and appointed Matt Gidley (Knights) and Robbie Middleby (Jets) as CEOs.

But in terms of the actual nuts and bolts of running one football club – let alone two – the hands-on experience was limited.

Palmer was a novice when it came to football clubs. As for Fisk, in the 12 months he spent at Cronulla from mid 2009, they suffered a 13-game losing streak – the worst in the club’s 43-year history – and won only five of 24 games.

He left after a falling-out with Cronulla chairman Damian Irvine.

Fourteen months earlier, when Fisk departed the Roosters, the Daily Telegraph reported he was ‘‘a surprise victim of a front-office restructure’’.

Fisk followed Ken Edwards, who formerly managed Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, to the Jets.

Edwards remains a mystery man in this whole affair.

For months, he was the public face of HSG as the group’s executive chairman. A masterful networker, he helped sell the Jets to Tinkler on behalf of FFA, then helped sell Tinkler’s deal to Knights members.

For both deals he was handsomely paid.

But as suddenly as Edwards appeared, he was gone.

Six months after he vanished from the scene and stopped returning calls, HSG released a statement saying the affable Queenslander had ‘‘resigned his post to spend more time with his Sydney-based family’’.

The departure of Edwards, who appeared to have agreed to a confidentiality clause, was convenient for HSG.

Behind the scenes, he was blamed for a number of contentious issues, in particular the matters involving the Culinas and the A-League franchise fee.

It seems when issues arise, more often than not HSG says the blame lies elsewhere.

First Burraston and Tew were the scapegoats. Then the Culinas. Then FFA.

When Tinkler failed to meet two deadlines to cough up a $20million bank guarantee for the Knights – having already taken control of the club – Palmer complained the time frame was unfair.

When Rock City launched a legal case alleging a $700,000 breach of contract, Palmer labelled the deal a ‘‘rort’’. That matter is still in the courts.

In March, the Herald reported HSG was in dispute with Hunter Venues over rent at Hunter Stadium – a source of angst for both the former Knights and Jets administrations. Most recently, HSG have blamed the Herald, the foundation sponsor they recently referred to as the ‘‘local paper’’ on their own website, for running continually ‘‘negative’’ stories.

These days, if they don’t like a question, they just don’t answer it. They did not respond to an invitation to comment in this story.

Yet as Fisk said when he was appointed CEO at Cronulla: ‘‘The number one thing we have to do is be transparent – and that starts with people admitting they’ve made mistakes and being prepared to learn from those mistakes.’’

IRRESPECTIVE of the ability in the front office, not even their most one-eyed supporters could label either the Jets or the Knights a ‘‘winning football team’’, although it is early days.

Since HSG assumed control, the Jets have twice finished seventh – the only time the club has missed the play-offs in consecutive seasons.

The Knights, after an encouraging start, have slipped to five successive defeats and languish in 14th position, three wins adrift of the top eight with 11 games to play.

Bennett’s stony face cannot hide his concern.

‘‘I don’t know whether we’re going backwards or forwards right now,’’ he said after Saturday’s 32-16 train wreck against Canberra.

‘‘We’re not going anywhere, to be honest with you.’’

Bennett has clearly lost faith in a host of senior players, including Junior Sa’u and Wes Naiqama, who have been asked to find new clubs.

The feeling would appear to be mutual.

Bennett said after the Canberra defeat that he was ‘‘in a situation where you’ve just got to play with the cards you’ve been dealt’’.

Many would argue, however, that at least he got to shuffle the deck.

Already speculation is mounting that he might not see out his four-year tenure, a prospect that Bennett, for one, does not seem to regard as outlandish.

‘‘I can tell you now, if I’m not doing my job, he [Tinkler] won’t keep me around and I don’t want to be kept around either,’’ he said in February.

‘‘But I don’t fear that with him. If I did, I wouldn’t have gone to the joint.’’

The belief remains that if anyone can get the Knights out of this mess, it is Bennett.

But there are more than 50 reasons – the players, coaches, staff, administration and even advisory board volunteers who in the past 20 months have parted ways with HSG – that suggest Bennett needs to perform.

NATHAN Tinkler, of course, is entitled to spend his money how he sees fit, and it is understandable that he does not take kindly to criticism.

There is no denying he has been very, very generous to this region.

But when he made his 10-year commitment to underwrite the Knights for $100million, Tinkler was confident the club would eventually cost him not one cent.

He had the ‘‘business acumen’’ to turn things around and return all profits to the organisation, without having to dip into his own pocket.

The reality has been vastly different.

HSG, which initially had to settle the Knights’ $6million liabilities, must have spent a fortune in paying out, and keeping silent, the likes of the Culinas, Ken Edwards and players of both codes whose contracts were terminated.

Neither the Jets nor the Knights have been able to attract an external major sponsor, so in a Clayton’s arrangement, both teams wear logos for Tinkler’s Hunter Ports on their jerseys.

Both sides have healthy season-ticket bases (Jets 11,000, Knights 18,000) but it remains to be seen how many fans will renew, given the on-field performances and an overall sense of disappointment.

In the case of the Jets, in particular, their new squad is almost unrecognisable, and certainly does not include any names as high-profile as Jason Culina.

Maybe it is only a matter of time before Newcastle have the winning teams they covet.

But talk is cheap, no matter if you have one dollar in the bank, or one billion.

Actions speak louder than words, as Danny Buderus knows all too well.

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