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Legend Q&A: Bill Peden

Bill Peden played 190 games for Newcastle from 1994 to 2002 and is the only player to play in their first three senior premiership-winning teams: 1995 reserve grade, 1997 ARL and 2001 NRL.

Yet after scoring two tries in the Knights' 2001 grand final victory over Parramatta, the hard-working utility forward who grew up in Cessnock alongside Matthew and Andrew Johns walked off ANZ Stadium and said, famously, "the sun even shines on a dog's bum sometimes".

Bill Peden Q&A

Why were you so self-effacing after that game?

Growing up in a town like Cessnock, the opportunities probably weren't as great. I think Matty and Joe [Matthew and Andrew Johns] paved the way a little bit so it probably came from a bit of self-doubt more than anything.

I wasn't sure whether I could achieve or play at that level, so that was more to exorcise my demons than anything else, if that makes sense.

So what was it like growing up in Cessnock in the 1970s and 80s?

Growing up in a small town, like most people who grew up in small towns realise, there weren't the same opportunities. There was no internet or gaming and all that sort of stuff. In the summer-time, you played cricket and in winter-time, you played footy. That's what you did.

Fortunately, we also had a little bloke who ended up being the eighth Immortal, which probably helped

I suppose that's where your love of rugby league grew from. You'd watch the local blokes play for Cessnock in the local league, because we didn't have the Knights back then, and they were our heroes.

You'd see them in the street and you'd be star-struck by blokes playing for Cessnock, then you'd get to watch the Sydney footy on the tele. It was an innocent time, and sport was God.

You still have a strong connection with your home town, so how did Cessnock shape you as a person and ultimately a player?

Cessnock is often looked down upon by people in Newcastle, which sort of suited us. We were happy to be the underdog.

It’s one of those things where if you're from Cessnock, you can bag the place, but if you're not, you can't. We're proud of that, and there is a real sense of community there.

You look at the blue-collar lifestyle that was Cessnock – and I've since moved into the mines and the mining industry – and the blokes who I always looked up to were hard, tough men who grafted away and looked after their family and did what they could for them. I looked up to that sort of person and hoped to aspire to be someone like that.

Knights v Sea Eagles - ARL Grand Final, 1997

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You joined the Knights after playing for Cessnock and were something of a late bloomer, joining the club at the age of 24.

It was a funny sort of evolution. I trialled at Parramatta and Canberra, and even once got a letter from Craig Bellamy, who was Canberra's reserve-grade coach at the time, saying I was very close but not quite good enough.

After that point, I'd probably given up to a certain degree and was happy just to play bush footy and knock around for Cessnock and hope to play for NSW Country, because I'd made the Newcastle rep team.

Bill Peden acknowledges Knights fans.
Bill Peden acknowledges Knights fans. ©NRL Photos

But Steve Fulmer came back to coach Cessnock and said that there's bigger things out there and if I was prepared to work hard, there might be other opportunities.

So with him and Matty Johns pushing my barrow down at the Knights, I think they finally gave in and said, 'We'll give this bloke a trial and see how he goes'.

Bill Peden playing against Manly.
Bill Peden playing against Manly. ©NRL Photos

So at the end of 1993, I was given the off-season to trial for a contract for the 1994 season. A lot of people, probably including myself, thought I wouldn't go further than the pre-season, but things worked out and I busted my butt and I realised if I was ever going to make anything of myself, it was going to be through hard work, not talent.

So I ripped in, had a crack, and got offered a contract in reserve grade. We went on to play in a losing grand final in 1994 and it all went from there.

So Craig Bellamy obviously saw something in you?

Clearly he wasn't a famous coach at the time, but to have someone who'd played first grade show a bit of faith and take the time to hand-write a letter to me and leave his phone number if ever I needed advice or anything, that was a huge thing for me at the time.

As much as it was a kick in the guts to miss out, I was quite proud that he'd made the effort to do that, and I thought that was as good as it was going to get.

Can you enlighten us on your relationship with the Johns brothers growing up in Cessnock?

We always knew each other. Matt and Joe lived in South Avenue, just around the corner from the pub where I grew up, and our parents were friends. We'd play the odd game of footy in the backyard but I wouldn't say we were best Chinas (mates). It probably kicked off a bit later after school when I played under-18s with Matty, and we ended up pretty close, and I always knew Joey.

He was a little bit younger but he was always training and playing with the older kids, so you got to know him. So it was just one of those things where we knocked around a bit together and ended up pretty close mates.

Bill Peden playing against North Queensland.
Bill Peden playing against North Queensland. ©NRL Photos

And now?

I don't keep in contact as much as I probably should, but if ever anyone's struggling, Joey or Matty are the first ones to put up their hand and help out, or even send a message or make a phone call.

We've forged a friendship for life through football and adversity, and I couldn't be happier for how things have worked out for them. Matty has a fantastic media career going, and Joey’s the same with his incredible commentary.

So, for a couple of young blokes from Cessnock, and I think I speak on behalf of everyone from Cessnock, we're really proud of what the boys have achieved and how they keep kicking goals.

After your first year at the Knights, Super League hit. Do you have a stand-out memory from then?

It was my second year at the Knights and I think I signed for $15,000 for that season which, at the time, I thought was a hell of a lot of money.

When the Super League war broke out early in that 1995 season, Gus Gould came up to Newcastle on behalf of the ARL. At the time, I had my knee in a brace – I'd done a medial ligament and I was waiting for that to repair – so I was waiting around for a lift home after training.

I was living with Nathan Barnes and he came out and said, 'Gus Gould's in there offering the boys contracts. Why don't you go in and see what you can get?' I was happy to just wait outside, then another one of the boys came out and told me to go in and see what happens, so in I went.

Gus said to me, 'How's 15 grand sound?', and I said, 'That sounds fantastic', because that's what I'd signed for that year, and this looked like being on top of that. Then Gus says, 'How's 25 grand sound?', and I said, 'That sounds even better', so I signed for 25 grand.

At that stage, I didn't know what sort of money anyone else was getting, but I remember we all went to the Kent Hotel to celebrate our big new contracts. Here was I on 25 grand, thinking I'd won Lotto, and God knows what the rest of the boys were on.

I didn't know and I don't want to know, but put it this way, I'm pretty sure it was a lot more than 25 grand, and here I was on 25 grand drinking champagne clinking glasses with everyone.

Full Match Replay: Knights v Eels - Grand Final, 2001

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You’re the only player in Knights history to play in the 1997 and 2001 grand finals, and 1995 reserve grade grand final. Is that something you hold dear?

I do. I'm quite proud to have played in that reserve grade side, because without having done that apprenticeship, there's no way I would have been prepared to play first grade.

That team that we had, we were coached by Robert Finch in 1994 when we made the grand final and lost, then Peter Sharp in 1995 when we won it.

It was just a bunch of really hard-working blokes, really tough men who had good principles, so without that sort of grounding, there's no way I would have went on to play as much first grade as I did.

Some would debate I was probably lucky to do that, but at the end of the day, I don't think I would have got to play in or win those grand finals without that grounding.

To be mentioned among some of those names, I think there's only five of us that have won the two grand finals (in 1997 and 2001). They're a pretty fair bunch the other four (Andrew Johns, Robbie O'Davis, Adam MacDougall and Mark Hughes), so to be mentioned in the same breath as those blokes, I'm pretty humbled and really quite proud.

You mentioned feeling humble and proud. Do you feel the same way about playing your entire first-grade career through the club's golden era?

I think extremely lucky comes to mind, that I was in that era. To think that I may have had something to do with it, once again, that makes me feel really proud.

It was just a time when things were a little more innocent, I suppose. We were working out of shipping containers at training, so we certainly didn't have flash facilities by any means.

I suppose we were just a bunch of blokes from Newcastle having a red-hot crack, and we did, and it worked out for us.

Fortunately, we also had a little bloke who ended up being the eighth Immortal, which probably helped, along with his pretty gifted brother as well. We also had great leadership.

Then Gus says, 'How's 25 grand sound?', and I said, 'That sounds even better', so I signed for 25 grand.

Bill Peden on the Super League era

You look at blokes like Chief, and apart from my father, I probably don't look up to a man more than I do Paul Harragon.

The way that he's conducted himself and the way he used to look after us, those sort of people don't come around very often. We also had a lot of local players, which I thought made us a little bit more accountable.

A lot of people remember that era, and what the team did on the football field in those times, and we're still accountable for it now.

You still get old ladies come up to you now and say, 'Congratulations, you had a good crack'.

I wouldn't like to be my age and have an old lady come up to me and say, 'Mate, you didn't really have a go'.

That's possibly gone out of the game a little bit now, with the franchise nature of the game, but every game evolves and everything happens for a reason. I think we were just a good fit at the time.

The squad we had, for the way the game was played at that time, and for what the region needed at that time, it was all a really good fit, and it worked out with two grand finals in a reasonably short period.

I've mentioned the word proud quite a few times, but I couldn’t be more proud of being involved with that bunch of blokes in that time.

To be coached by blokes like Malcolm Reilly, Mick Hagan, Warren Ryan, David Waite, they’re pretty intelligent men.

Knights great Bill Peden.
Knights great Bill Peden. ©NRL Photos

What legacy do you think you left at the Knights?

I think legacy sounds like something for people who achieved a lot more than me. Looking back, I always remember my old Mum. She could get cranky sometimes, but she always used to say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.

I knew I wasn't the biggest bloke on the field but I knew I wouldn't die without trying. I was always going to give it a crack. I suppose if there was anything I would want people to remember me by, it was that I had a really good go and gave it my best.

Sometimes I fell short but sometimes I achieved what I wanted to achieve by just having a crack and really working hard to achieve a goal.