Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

WHENEVER sporting administrators talk of five-year plans, they tend to encounter a cynical reception.

BIG PLANS: Chief executive Phil Gardner says the Wests Group have ambitious but realistic expectations after assuming ownership of the Knights. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

BIG PLANS: Chief executive Phil Gardner says the Wests Group have ambitious but realistic expectations after assuming ownership of the Knights. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

But after the Wests Group assumed full ownership of the Newcastle Knights this week, perhaps a five-year time frame to deliver the club’s first premiership since 2001 is a realistic guesstimate, sitting halfway between ambitious and circumspect.

Season 2018 will be about climbing off the bottom of the ladder after three successive wooden spoons. In 2019, the Knights would logically be aiming for the top eight, or thereabouts.

Come 2020 and 2021, when names like Smith, Thurston, Cronk, Slater and Gallen are on the ex-players’ list, it should be generally accepted, before a ball is kicked, that Newcastle will feature at the business end of those campaigns.

And in 2022, when the likes of Sione Mata’utia, the Saifitis, Danny Levi, Brock Lamb, Connor Watson and Kalyn Ponga are seasoned first-graders entering the prime of their careers, nothing less than a grand final berth will be acceptable.

If it happens any quicker than that, all the better.

It sounds good in theory, anyway.

As Wests/Knights CEO Phil Gardner told Sporting Declaration: “We’ve got a three-year plan to start, then we’re looking at a five-year plan to get ourselves up to benchmark.

“But if you look at the great clubs, they’ve had players playing together for a long period of time, and they’ve had stable administration. We’re just putting that together now. It will take time.” 

Gardner added: “You have to have a plan. You just have to be nimble, because in professional sport things change quickly.

“But we need to have benchmarks and build it up as we go. And certainly five-year plans aren’t saying we can accept a failure in year one because we’re going to get there in year five.

“That’s just bullshit.

“You’ve got to set realistic goals, so we know where we want to be in 2018, ’19, ’20 and so on.”

Gardner said Wests’ expectations for next season were simply that the Knights “improve and make some progress”.

“The big challenge will be keeping our best team fit and on the park,” Gardner said. “The reality is while we’ve brought new players in, other clubs probably have greater depth than we do.

“A lot is going to depend on how our younger guys get through the season. If we get a lot of injuries, it’s going to be challenging, which is the same for most clubs.

“If we have a reasonably injury-free run, we think we can do reasonably well.”

Making the finals in 2018, he said, was an “aspirational” goal that would require “the bounce of the ball” consistently favouring Newcastle in a number of areas.

Most importantly, he wants the Knights to compete fiercely in every game at McDonald Jones Stadium and provide Novocastrians with good reason to part with their hard-earned at the turnstiles.

“If we can win the majority of our home games, that’s really important,” he said.

“That’s what we have to aim for, because it will really fuel the animal instincts in the town. If we can be in every game at home, win the majority of them, that will be a good season.”

Over the course of the past 30 years, few clubs have enjoyed such loyal support as the Knights. For the past three seasons – the bleakest period (results-wise) in the club’s history – they have averaged crowds of 15,891, 14,457 and 15,619 at their home games.

Most rival clubs don’t enjoy as healthy attendances even during halcyon years.

Already the Knights have sold 8800 season-ticket memberships for next year, which has them on track to surpass their 2017 tally of 13,370.

“We’re in front of where we were last year in terms of memberships,” Gardner said. “Aspirationally, we’d like to get up around 20,000. If we can get a team that’s performing well, considering the support we traditionally receive from this wonderful community, you’d have to think that number is do-able.”

While on-field performances are the club’s shop window, Gardner said the Knights will also be striving to lift their game behind the scenes.

“There’s the financial side of it, looking after sponsors, selling membership tickets, servicing people properly and putting value in that whole proposition,” he said.

“We want to put more resources into those areas, and our digital properties, so our fans are more engaged.

“People who would tick the box of saying they are a fan of the Knights, we would like to double that over the next three years.”

While clubs like Melbourne and the Roosters might seem almost unassailable, Wests recognise that Newcastle hold one significant advantage – a junior nursery that has produced numerous champions over the years, and will presumably do so again in the future.

“We want to build a pipeline of juniors coming through, put in a good pathway and good coaches, and if we get the approval for a centre of excellence, hopefully we can have it finished in 2019 for the following season,” Gardner said.

Some will opt to believe it when they see it. But Wests’ track record surely offers cause for optimism.

Long-suffering Knights fans are daring to dream, which makes for a welcome change.