Since 1988, they have been the heart and soul of a region. In his newly published book "Hard Yards: The story of the Newcastle Knights", ROBERT DILLON relives the highs and lows of an iconic club.


The photograph, a black-and-white developed in the Newcastle Herald's long-since-defunct darkroom, is a reminder of the way things were back in the day, in stark contrast to how they are now.

It was taken on September 18, 1995, the day after a 12-4 loss to arch-rivals Manly at Sydney Football Stadium knocked the Newcastle Knights out of the finals race.

It was a Monday. The Monday after a season-ending loss ... aka Mad Monday.

A group of Knights players, including some of the biggest names in the club's history, are standing outside a Hunter Street pub, clutching half-empty schooners.

Judging by the silly grins, they've been on the squirt for hours. Adding weight to that theory, they're dressed in op-shop drag.

Closer inspection of the photo reveals that one of the players is flashing more than a smile. He's pulled a long, flowing, floral dress to one side, leaving nothing to the imagination. It's all hanging out, au naturel.

From memory, that picture was seen by dozens of my Herald colleagues, male and female, and I can't recall anyone taking offence. We all just laughed and shook our heads: "Typical bloody footballers."
The notion of publishing it, even in a censored form, was never discussed.

Can you imagine what would happen if that had occurred in this day and age?

It would run on the front page and go viral on the internet.

The social media lynch mob would prompt the NRL's integrity unit to intervene. The player would be suspended and then de-registered. If he offered a tearful apology, undertook a 12-month counselling course and kept himself out of strife in the meantime, he might be allowed to resume his football career.

Back in 1995, however, the traditional mindset was very much "what happens on tour, stays on tour". On this occasion, the Knights were not exactly on tour, but the same rules applied to their Hunter Street pub crawl.

That's just how it was.


Over the past 12 months or so, I have reflected on this anecdote and many others – and how times have changed – in compiling what I believe is a comprehensive history of the Newcastle Knights' first 30 years.

Every player, every game, every high, every low, every statistic, 1988-2017. It's in there, warts and all, in the 240 pages of Hard Yards: The story of the Newcastle Knights.

In the case of the aforementioned exhibitionist, however, and another player responsible for a similar prank during a sponsor's photo shoot a few years earlier, I've refrained from identifying them.

These days they're not young, boofhead footballers but middle-aged men with wives and families. I figured they don't need the embarrassment of being named and shamed for indiscretions in a bygone era.

Is it really fair to judge them by today's all-intrusive standards? I think not, although, in hindsight, 1995 was probably when the landscape started to change.

In 1995, the unprecedented Super League war, like Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket revolution almost two decades earlier, transformed the 13-man code into a full-time profession in which players could earn riches beyond their wildest dreams.

There was no such luxury for the motley crew of little-known pioneers assembled in late 1987 to help launch the Newcastle Knights – the city's first top-flight team since 1909, when an outfit known as the "Rebels" or the "Coaly Men" withdrew after two seasons and 20 games in the inaugural breakaway NSW Rugby League.

Newcastle's re-entry, after a hiatus of almost 80 years, was a painstaking process that kicked off in 1979 when three visionary men – media commentator and personality Leigh Maughan, real estate agent Gerry Edser and lawyer Michael Hill – met for a long lunch at Belmont's Squid's Ink restaurant.

At the time, Newcastle had teams competing in the national soccer and basketball leagues, KB United and the Falcons respectively. Maughan and Edser, a member of Newcastle's champion 1964 State Cup-winning side, were convinced their city deserved a similar presence on rugby league's biggest stage.

But they were having little luck in pitching the concept to officials from the Newcastle Rugby League.

They were wondering if Hill, with his legal expertise and myriad high-profile sporting connections, could help?

Eight years later, their dream was realised when on April 6, 1987, NSWRL general manager John Quayle announced the inclusion of three new teams in the following season's competition: Brisbane, Gold Coast ... and Newcastle.

But admission into the NSWRL premiership was just the start. Before a ball was kicked, the new Knights' board of directors had to sign a coach, players, sponsors and foundation members, not to mention reconfiguring the International Sports Centre into a half-decent stadium.


It was around this time a teenage cadet journalist from the Herald's sports department appeared on the periphery.

At that formative stage of my career, I was juggling tasks such as collating the sports details and racing results with writing the weekly "Juniors in Sport" column.

When I was responsible for incorrectly printing the same lawn bowls fixtures, two weeks in a row, my then sports editor Stewart Roach was entitled to query whether my weekly wage was money down the drain.

If nothing else, Stewart knew that I was a rugby league tragic.

That was perhaps best evidenced by my response to a conversation I overheard between Roachy and our veteran league reporter, Jack "Bumper" Farrell. From what I could glean, the newly recruited Knights would be congregating for a training run at Blackbutt Reserve that Sunday.

Whether or not it was their first-ever training session, I can't rightly say. But it would have been there or thereabouts.

For some reason, I just had to be there.

After a pep talk from new coach Allan McMahon, the players who would be responsible for creating history then set off on a cross-country run.


From memory, I don't think I even talked to anyone. I just sat in the car-park and observed, as if witnessing with my own eyes would validate their existence.

As I drove away, it dawned on me that these young men would soon be competing against the superstars from Manly, Canterbury, Balmain, Eastern Suburbs, North Sydney and company, and would need all the support they could muster.

If that was hard to comprehend, it was nothing compared to the surreal news Stewart delivered a few months later. He had a new round for me. I would be covering the Knights during their inaugural crusade.

There is no way I was ready for such a huge assignment. Barely two years out of high school, I was still a naive novice.

But perhaps Stewart, to borrow a line from coach McMahon, believed that I had a few "tomorrows" ahead of me, and I will be eternally grateful for his foresight.

And what an adventure it was. Those genuinely were the good old days, when players held "real jobs" as plumbers, labourers or sales reps, and trained under dodgy floodlights at an array of suburban grounds.

They would bus it down to Sydney on the morning of their games, and sometimes the Newcastle Herald would accompany them on the trip home, sharing a beer or two from the team esky.

Instantly, from the moment they shocked premiers Manly 24-12 in a 1988 pre-season trial match known as the Newcastle Herald Challenge Cup, there was a synergy between these courageous giant-killers and the community they were representing.

It was a case of love at first sight, and a unique tribal bond that other clubs can only envy remains intact three decades later.

I haven't covered every season since 1988. That's a job I've shared with a host of good men, in particular Brett Keeble.

I spent a couple of years in England, four years at the Canberra Times, and seven years working on the Herald's sub-editing desk.

But all the way along, I've retained an interest in the Knights bordering on obsession. When I was in England in the early 1990s, for instance, in the pre-internet era, I insisted my parents send me newspaper cut-outs and videos of their games.

And over the course of the past 30 years, I've developed a Rainman-like knowledge of the club and its history. If I'm asked to buy a loaf of bread at the shops, five minutes later I will return empty-handed, having completely forgotten. Yet somehow, I can remember in minute detail, how a game unfolded more than 20 years ago.

Eventually I realised maybe I had enough memories, anecdotes and statistics to produce something more lasting than the next day's newspaper.

The desire to publish a book, a history of the Knights, started growing inside me. The 30-season milestone seemed a perfect time to reflect on the past, as we look towards a (hopefully) bright and prosperous future, after last year's takeover by the Wests Group. I decided it was now or never.

The process, which kicked off more than 12 months ago, has reminded me that the Knights have scarcely experienced an uneventful season.


There have been incredible triumphs, and gut-wrenching tragedies, on and off the field, and not much in between.

There were two grand final victories during a golden era in which the Knights made the play-offs eight times in nine years. There have been a who's who of champion players, headed by the Johns brothers, Paul Harragon, Danny Buderus, Ben Kennedy, Mark Sargent, Tony Butterfield, Michael Hagan and the Gidley siblings.

On the flip side, there have been four wooden spoons, the past three in a row. And for all the heroes and halcyon days, there have been villains and fiascos.

All in all, there have been more than enough stories, stats, and outstanding Newcastle Herald photographs to fill a book, which has been brought to life, as if by magic, by graphic artist extraordinaire Tracy Peters.

I certainly had a lot of fun writing it. I'd like to think Knights fans will enjoy the read.


HARD YARDS: The story of the Newcastle Knights. 240 pages, $39.95. Available from Nextra newsagents (Westfield Kotara, Cessnock, Warners Bay Plaza, Stockland Glendale, Marketown, Mount Hutton, Mayfield, Hamilton and Raymond Terrace), www.theherald.mybigcommerce.com, and the Herald's reception desk at 28 Honeysuckle Drive.


HARD YARDS: THE STORY OF THE NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

For 30 years, the Newcastle Knights have been the heart and soul of the Hunter Region.

Hard Yards: The Story of the Newcastle Knights tackles the complete history of the beloved rugby league club.

The new book from award-winning Newcastle Herald journalist Robert Dillon covers every player, every game, every triumph, every loss and every controversy. If you are fan of the blue and red, or simply enjoy a rollicking read, don't miss this 250-page collector's item.

Books can be ordered now for $39.95* (plus postage and handling) through the Newcastle Herald online shop.

You can also buy the book from the front office of the Newcastle Herald at 28 Honeysuckle Drive, Newcastle; Maitland Mercury, Level 1, Suite 2/12 Elgin Street, Maitland; The Advertiser, 155 Vincent Street, Cessnock; Singleton Argus, 6-8 Campbell Street, Singleton; and Muswellbrook Chronicle, 1-2/6 Commercial Centre Market Lane, Muswellbrook. Available too at nextra Group Newsagencies: Westfield Kotara, Cessnock, Warners Bay Plaza, Stockland Glendale, Marketown, Raymond Terrace, Mount Hutton, Mayfield and Hamilton.