The untold story of Newcastle’s bid to sign Michael Maguire and why they must clean house
The Newcastle Knights must start again, and the clean-out must start at the very top of the organisation, writes David Riccio.
One of the game’s greatest administrators targeted Michael Maguire as the man to turn the Newcastle Knights around.
Maguire had just won the premiership with South Sydney in 2014 when former ARL supremo and then Newcastle director John Quayle drove to Sydney with the advice of Wayne Bennett ringing in his ear.
Bennett had decided to quit the Knights after three seasons to return to Queensland.
However, the veteran coach had seen enough of the club, the community and the playing group to impress upon Quayle what style of coach the Knights needed to replace him.
Don’t sign a sook. Find a coach who is ruthless. And appoint a coach who won’t put up with players who blame everyone else.
The cracks that have widened every season since, to the point of the 2022 season slipping into an abyss, had already begun to appear as Bennett waved Newcastle goodbye.
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Ahead of a club-defining clash with the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown on Sunday, few are aware that Quayle and former Knights CEO Matt Gidley hit the F3 and met Maguire at the Paddington home of his manager.
At the time, Newcastle hadn’t yet secured their financial future with the Wests Group, but Maguire, never afraid of a challenge, listened to Quayle and Gidley’s pitch.
They both said how difficult resurrecting the club was going to be.
But with Maguire‘s hardened experience and direction, they could get there.
History shows that Maguire decided to stay for three more years at Souths before then linking with the Wests Tigers.
And the Knights are still digging their way out.
Since Bennett, the Knights have churned through short and long-stay coaches in Rick Stone, Danny Buderus, Nathan Brown, Kristian Woolf and current coach Adam O’Brien.
Quayle’s attempt to lure Maguire is viewed by many within the Knights as a sliding doors moment.
More than a couple of key figures still at the club have since quipped that Maguire is again available, that is, if a deal working as a senior assistant at Canterbury, alongside no. 1 head coaching contender Cameron Ciraldo, isn’t already done.
For the same reason that Quayle and Gidley worked hard on Maguire, the names of tough and hardened premiership-winners Paul Green and Shane Flanagan, have also been floated where it matters in the Hunter.
The entire club wants O’Brien to succeed and they will back him, to a point.
Undeniably, O’Brien needs results, beginning on Sunday, and to avoid the wooden spoon.
However, as history shows, O’Brien isn’t the first coach to struggle under the guidance of CEO Phil Gardner.
Since being appointed in 2017, Gardner has overseen the lot. He has rubber-stamped the club’s three recruitment managers in four years, yet Knights fans are still waiting to produce a homegrown halfback.
There’s been the high rotation of head coaches, not to mention a mass of assistant coach changes, high performance staff and a failure to recruit – and hold onto longer than three seasons – a club leader to drive player and cultural standards with six club captains in eight years including Jamie Buhrer, Trent Hodkinson, Sione Mata’utia, Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and Jayden Brailey.
And why only now, has support arrived for developing GM of football Danny Buderus, in the shape of the club’s most experienced administrator, Director of Football Peter Parr?
O’Brien should feel let down by Gardner, who is criticised by his staff for changing his mind quicker than a Ponga step.
Gardner famously declared he believed Brown could become the longest-serving coach in Newcastle history.
Soon after, Brown was gone.
Gardner’s fleeting support of his head coaches coupled with a failure to identify and drive the club’s DNA, that is founded on tough, hardworking local juniors, has created instability from the top to bottom.
O’Brien should be nervous, if nothing else because of Gardner.
In leading the Knights, Gardner has stunned his staff by referencing the past achievements of affiliate club Wests Newcastle as some sort of proof, seemingly struggling to comprehend that the local Newcastle competition is far removed from the NRL.
Prior to the David Klemmer fiasco this week, O’Brien was shortened-up for comments he made when defending the team’s dismal performance against Canterbury.
He pointed to the premiership-success he achieved as an assistant at the Storm and Roosters to express his vision for how the Knights find a way out of this mess.
What O’Brien failed to identify publicly was that each of the premiership-success he experienced is directly related to the front office, where the likes of Storm Chair Matt Tripp and GM of football Frank Ponissi, alongside Roosters chair Nick Politis, provide not only the stability for success, but the long-term planning for sustained excellence.
The Raiders, Sharks and Rabbitohs leaders are no different, each led by CEO’s and chair’s, who create high-performance environments for their coach and players to excel.
There is increasing discussion emanating out of Newcastle that representative centre Dane Gagai isn’t happy and could reunite with former Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett at The Dolphins and that rising star Bradman Best, potentially looking for a fresh start, has also been offered to rival clubs.
The Knights salary cap structure is flawed with three of their top four highest-paid players being forwards in David Klemmer, Daniel Saifiti and Jacob Saifiti.
Ponga is number 1 at $1.1 million even though he is yet to play an entire season in five years at the Knights.
The club’s financial ability to sign halfback Luke Brooks from the Wests Tigers is seriously strained, if not impossible.
Knowing that only Adam Elliott and Jack Hetherington – more forwards – are coming to the club next season, freeing up cap space and starting again by letting players go early from their contracts has recently been discussed by management.
Penrith have been used as the blueprint for Newcastle.
In 2019, after being smashed by the Wests Tigers 30-4 in Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium, the Panthers most influential decision-makers stood watching the carnage unfold.
The call was made immediately after that game to rid the team of players that they didn’t believe were who they wanted the club to represent.
Players Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Waqa Blake, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Tyrell Fuimaono, Hame Sele weren’t re-signed, while James Moloney picked a deal in France.
It’s worth noting, Penrith finished 10th in 2019 and one-point outside a finals berth when they made the big calls.
The Knights are a chance to collect this year’s wooden spoon.
It would be the club’s fourth spoon in eight seasons.
The experienced Parr has been appointed for a reason.
He has premiership-winning experience from more than 20-years at North Queensland as a Director, CEO and football manager.
Parr understands accountability, governance, roster management, salary cap, recruitment and the at-times painful demands of players.
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Gardner has proven he doesn’t have the tools to fix the Knights.
Appointing Parr CEO would be the perfect start.
Originally published as The untold story of Newcastle’s bid to sign Michael Maguire and why they must clean house