Mining for a Heart of Gold

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Often when one door shuts, another one opens. For the Newcastle and Hunter regional community, it appears the door of optimism burst wide open when Nathan Tinkler landed in the cockpit of the Newcastle Jets, Chris Hills writes.

Just over a week ago, the door that represented Con Constantine and the existence of the Newcastle Jets’ A-League franchise appeared doomed to be slammed and left shut for good. Constantine’s problems were well documented. Staff and player wages hadn’t been paid for weeks, fees were owed, and at the heart of it all was a cash-flow problem. Rumours about the reasons behind Constantine’s cash shortage stretched far and wide, ranging from bungled asset purchases to tax issues. Whatever the reasons, the situation for the Newcastle Jets looked dire; so much so that Football Federation Australia financed the Jets in the interim, only assuring their existence on a short term, week by week basis. Such assurance was cold comfort for Newcastle’s football community, and even smaller for players and staff alike. A decision needed to be made, and the ever astute Frank Lowy and his board delivered. A bombshell was dropped when the news exploded that FFA had revoked Constantine’s licence for the embattled A-League club. Within minutes, football stole the limelight of the Hunter’s headlines; the word spreading across websites, radio, TV and social media. Constantine’s ousting aside, the big news that the club was set to continue in the A-League under the ownership of Novocastrian, mining, and thoroughbred magnate, Nathan Tinkler, was met with a collective sigh of relief that resounded well and truly across the nation.

While some felt Constantine got what he deserved, there was an overarching sentiment of sympathy from Novocastrians for the man that poured an estimated $15 million dollars from his own pockets into Newcastle’s national football flagships. At the peak of his reign, Constantine brought in high profile players and crowd favourites including Milton Rodriguez, Nicky Carle and more recently, Joel Griffiths. He was prepared to give a Sydney-sider turned Novocastrian, Gary Van Egmond, a go as head coach and regularly landed an average of 15,000 spectators for home games, culminating in a near record crowd of 22,000 for the Jets’ home semi-final against Sydney in 2007/08. In his greatest achievement, Constantine made history when the Jets ran out one nil winners over local rivals Central Coast Mariners in the 2007/08 Hyundai A-League grand final, winning Newcastle’s first national championship. Along with such highs, the club and Constantine had their low points. There was a long history of debacles and management malpractice at the club that included breaches of contract, refusal to use player service agreements and physical threats from Constantine to the club’s supporters. Recruitment and retention issues meant the club became a terminal lounge for players and the fans found it difficult to identify with a constantly changing team. A year after winning the premiership, the Jets fell from grace to finish last in the 2008/09 season, and not even a giant wooden spoon could hide the problems that lay behind the curtains. More often than not, off the park, the Jets were the laughing stock of the league. Constantine never learnt that there is no ‘I’ in team, his ‘my way or the highway’ approach to management proved to be the source of much discontent and fracture between players and management dating back to the days of the old National Soccer League. Constantine burnt his bridges with local business and the community as fans saw the Jets as “Con’s” club, and an amateur one at that. Constantine effectively caused his own demise. In his time of crisis no one came, crowds dwindled and eventually the cash ran out. While Constantine’s contribution will not be forgotten, his departure can be surmised as thank you, but thank god.

Now back to that door of opportunity. Little is known about Nathan Tinkler outside of the fact that he has a funny name, is passionate about sports, namely rugby league and horse racing, and is a former electrician turned coal mining magnate estimated to be worth around $610 million dollars. Much debate surrounded his decision to take the licence from FFA and preside as owner of the Newcastle Jets. Some have come out and laid claim that he is in fact a clone of Clive Palmer and that the ulterior motive of profit is the driving force behind his decision. However, I feel these comments are off the mark. To put it in TAB terms, owning an A-League club is hardly a safe bet considering the remote chances of profit that are reflective of the stage of the league’s development. If profit is an ulterior motive, then Tinkler is barking up the wrong tree. Following the sentiments of Novocastrian football legend, Craig Johnston, Tinkler has publicly stated that he has taken on the club as an ‘act of community’ not just for the thousands of footballers, but for the town itself. Not only do I believe his word, but he is absolutely right about the need for football in this town. Football has the potential to unite a passionate community under a shared vision and ethos, as well as bring tourism and economic boosts to the region. The Newcastle Jets are just as much a part of the identity of Newcastle as the beaches and coal mines. It would have been sad to lose football at a national level in our culture, but it would have been an even bigger blow to the football culture in Australia if it were to lose its identity in the proverbial birthplace of football in this country.

Tinkler has touted his take over, and new era in the Jets’ history, as a fresh beginning and rebirth for the club. In his own words, Tinkler doesn’t want to be seen as the owner of the Jets but instead “wants to provide a nursery for the development of the game for the thousands of young football players in the Hunter region”, stating it is “not his team, it’s Newcastle’s”. The Jets’ new owner has been clear in his intention to move away from the previous business practises adopted by Constantine. He has said that he plans to establish a long term and sustainable structure for the club with a professionally run board, comprising of knowledgeable and capable Novocastrians at its centre point. It’s obvious that Tinkler wants to leave the important decisions about the club in the hands of those who know best. Again Tinkler is spot-on in his assessment and vision, the local community has long been yearning for involvement with the club and a creation of a professional structure. Tinkler seeks a united community that has a large stake of interest in the Newcastle Jets as an important community asset. The eccentric and sometimes prophetic Liverpool legend Bill Shankly once said that at football clubs “there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques”. Shankly highlights the importance of a club culture built on a common identity and shared vision. If this symbiotic relationship is harnessed properly, the sky could be the limit for the Jets in a region that has over 60,000 involved in football within Northern NSW.

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So far, the signs from Tinkler have been good. His first move was to try and win back the hearts of the community by letting in children under the age of 15 free of charge for the home game against Melbourne Victory. From reports, this is a trend that looks set to continue. The appointment of Ken Edwards, a man who helped develop South Sydney Rabbitohs new ownership model, as chief executive appears to be a wise decision. From all accounts he is a very measured and personable bloke and he too has echoed Tinkler’s thoughts on community engagement. For me, Edward’s appointment is a giant step in the right direction. At Saturday night’s game against Victory, Edwards, on behalf of Tinkler, met with some local football legends including Ray Baartz and Joe Senkalski, as well as other community based football, business and media personnel, to discuss options for the club’s future. An inside source tells me the general consensus, on at least one of the issues, was the need for better grass roots development, starting with more local products in the Jets’ youth team. As it currently stands, there are far too many players in the youth team from outside Northern NSW. A region that has produced 98 Socceroos should be able to fill the squad easily. Local player quality is not an excuse for non selection, if the Jets neglect and fail to develop players in their own backyard, then who will? This is not a responsibility, however, that should be left solely to the Jets; ultimately there needs to be an open dialogue from State League clubs and Northern NSW Football, the governing body, to develop a supporting relationship and structure for successful youth development. History tells us such a relationship has been frosty in the past, and unfortunately, the only losers are the players.

It appears that it is all systems go from Nathan Tinkler, as the man works fast to rebuild the bridges between the Hunter community and the Jets. His willingness to embrace the community has reset the mindset and reopened dialogue to improve relationships with the community, local business and even the Knights. There is a resounding feeling of optimism in the town about the future of the club. Football is a passion and it takes a passionate person to run a football club. However, one must not forget that while it is an individual passion, football, by its very nature, is a collective and team passion also. Constantine was an undeniably passionate football man, but was also an autocratic business man. Without the structure and foundation of a team, Constantine failed. Nathan Tinkler appears to be that team player. He is a big man with a big heart, someone the Hunter football community has long been searching for. Tinkler has taken a chance on their behalf. He has put his heart on his sleeve in unfamiliar territory, mining for some gold. What he is mining for only the Hunter community can provide. It is time they come out and show their support; that they too have hearts of gold.

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