The bitter truth forcing away Newcastle Knights fans
THE Newcastle Knights' last home game of the year is Old Boy's day.
Most clubs make a big deal of these annual occasions, but what makes Newcastle's extra special is that the club is the founder of the concept in rugby league.
Yet this week a section of the proud Newcastle fan base were calling for a boycott of Saturday's clash at home, in protest of coach Nathan Brown's shock departure.
This is the same group who have proven over many years their passion and commitment is not dependent on results.
Through a run of three straight wooden spoons in recent seasons, they never turned on their team like some are now. This speaks directly to the dark place this once proud footy club has found itself back in.
Five years after Nathan Tinkler's financial collapse, the Knights' faithful are being put through another excruciating test.
Few would have seen this coming earlier this season when Newcastle had charged through six straight wins, included a thumping 38-12 victory over reigning premiers the Sydney Roosters.
At that point most believed it was a formality the Knights would make the finals for the first time since under Wayne Bennett in 2013.
But Brown's demise has exposed an underlying culture where self-interest and denial on every level appears to be winning out over the core values of respect and trust - the foundations the club was built on.
While young superstar Kalyn Ponga has attempted to explain his infamous "strawberry thickshake" response to Brown's sacking as a slip of the tongue that was "taken a bit out of perspective", it is not the first time some fans and experts have questioned Ponga's commitment in recent weeks.
The young fullback was hammered on social media after joking around with Parramatta players while still on the field after a recent loss (Brown staunchly defended him), while Ponga's performance in last weekend's 46-4 capitulation to Wests Tigers smacked of a player whose head just wasn't in the game.
Skipper Mitchell Pearce has also strongly refuted suggestions the playing group was in any way involved in Brown's downfall.
Pearce claimed in his Newcastle newspaper column: "I am filthy and offended that everyone is having a crack at the boys over it. I've been in the game a while but I still scratch my head with some of the agendas among the media who just tee off at times with accusations that are made up".
LISTEN! On the Matty Johns podcast, Matty lets fly on the crisis engulfing his former club the Newcastle Knights, and the team look at the best NRL rivalries and recall some of their favourite interview moments.
While Pearce is entitled to defend his players, last week's loss to the Tigers was the team's eighth defeat in their past 10 games. Perhaps more alarming is that the Tigers aren't exactly a competition heavyweight.
But equally concerning for the club is a theory that Brown may have feared the roster he had spent four years putting together was ultimately not up to the challenge he had set them.
Even the Knights' greatest player, Andrew Johns, was accused this week by chief executive Philip Gardner of making up his own agenda after Johns claimed the club's administration "sabotaged" the team's finals hopes.
Significantly, Gardner wrote in a statement to fans: "Suggestions of sabotage from the front office while finals were at stake is ludicrous."
It seems on every level the club is living in a false reality, or so they want you to believe. Yet conversations with people from within, paint a different picture.
It is understood the Knights' management had been questioning Brown's coaching and recruitment decisions for some time - and after interviewing senior players a decision was made that the coach, who had an open-ended, performance-based contract, would be cut loose at the end of the season.
It is understood that for his trouble Brown received a significant payout in the vicinity of $500,000, which perhaps explains why he has publicly remained so supportive of the process.
One of the biggest criticisms of the way it has been managed is summed up by the fact league administrator John Quayle and champion former Knights hooker Danny Buderus, who are both on a Newcastle football advisory board, where not consulted during the process.
It is also understood Newcastle football boss Brian Canavan was also left out of the loop.
While Gardner has publicly denied the Knights made any approach to Roosters assistant Adam O'Brien before Brown's exit, the Tricolours gave a different version of what was taking place behind the scenes.
Powerful Roosters chairman Nick Politis was so upset that O'Brien was talking to a rival club, despite not yet completing the first year of a three-year contract, that Politis wanted to sack the former Melbourne Storm assistant, only to be calmed by head coach Trent Robinson to not upset the Roosters so close to the finals.
Meanwhile, rugby league's most loyal fans are left wondering if they should bother turning up for the day that usually delivers the biggest cheer of the season.
Stream the 2019 NRL Telstra Premiership on KAYO SPORTS. Every game of every round Live & On-Demand on your TV, computer, mobile or tablet. Get your 14 day free trial.