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Memories sure to last

IT’S been a year that Newcastle sports lovers would prefer to forget, but sadly, inevitably, the memories are destined tolinger for all thewrong reasons.
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Just as 1997, 2001 and 2008 remainasreference points for the defining achievements ofour footballing flagships, so too will 2015 be remembered for decades to come, but with contrasting emotions.

The Knights and Jets had previously both collected wooden spoons in their respective competitions.

But to have two national-league franchisesfinish last in the same year, within six months of each other, is surely unprecedented, not only for Newcastle but any Australian city.

Compare that to Townsville, which boasts a smaller population but is still basking in the euphoria of grand final triumphs by the North Queensland Cowboys and Townsville Fire (captained, incidentally, by Newcastle’s Suzy Batkovic).

During an annus horribilisfor both our teams, the loyalty of their fans has been stretched to the limit.

In 14 games at Hunter Stadiumin 2015, the Jets managed just one win. The Knights won four of 12 games on home turf.

So if you were committed (or masochistic)enough to have attended all 26 of those fixtures, only five times would you have headed home celebrating a victory. All of which seems pretty depressing. Supporters were left prayinglast season was rock bottom and the only way is up.

The Jets, it should be noted, appear to be making progress after the train wreck that was 2014-15.

This time last year, the players were on the verge of a mutiny that they hoped would overthrow then coach Phil Stubbins but instead resulted in wholesale sackings.

After the demise of former owner Nathan Tinkler, it was inevitable that Stubbins would be replaced and there seems far greater synergy between new coach Scott Miller and his troops.

In saying that, Newcastle are winless in their past eight games and have not scored in four outings. But at least they appear organised and unified, which was not the case last season.

UNFLAGGING SUPPORT: Despite the annus horribilis of 2015, both the Newcastle Knights and Jets have stronger fan bases than many clubs. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Given the quality of the players at his disposal, I would say Miller is getting the absolute best out of them. Most weeks they have been competitive against teams assembled on far larger budgets.

Whether they can make the finals for the first time in six seasons is another matter altogether. But after the dysfunctional mess that was the Tinkler era, there appears a glimmer of hope.

Much will depend on the club’s recruitment and retention over the next couple of months. If Newcastle are any hope of featuring in this season’s play-offs, they will need to bolster their ranks in the January transfer window.

Looking forward, it will be essential that they retain key off-contract players, in particular Ben Kantarovski, Enver Alivodic and Jason Hoffman.

The last thing the club needs is another cleanout and rebuilding phase, which has become almost an annual event.

The bottom line is that, slowly but surely, the Jets are regaining credibility. It won’t happen overnight.

As for the Knights, I still find it hard to comprehend their capitulation last season after winning their first four games.

Their entire campaign was encapsulated in thelast-round loser-takes-all showdown at Penrith, when a win would have allowed Newcastle to avoid the ignominy of the spoon.

Instead they were out-enthused and outplayed 30-12 by an injury-hit Penrith team, leaving Knights Hall of Fame legend and Heraldcolumnist Tony Butterfield querying whether, given the stakes,the second-half performance was the worst in the club’s history.

It was a sad note on which veteran skipper Kurt Gidley ended his Newcastle career. He deserved better, as did former Knights coach Rick Stone, sacked mid-season, and his caretaker replacement, Danny Buderus.

As Buderus said before handing the reins over to incoming Nathan Brown:”It’s a big job at hand. Everyone’s got to help, from top to bottom, in our organisation … we’ve got a long way to get up to those top clubs, and we’ve got to work and fight hard to get up there. You can’t put a year or a tally on when we will, but it’ll turn around. That’s for sure.”

Somehow it is hard to see either the Knights or Jets realising their potential while they remain under the control of their governing bodies.

The priority in 2016 has to be investigating alternativeownership models. A region of this size, incorporating the mining industry and a major port,should be able to financiallysupport and sustain two professional footballing teams.

History would suggest Newcastle and the Hunter Region produces outstanding talent in both codes, from Reg Date, to Craig Johnston, to Clive Churchillto Andrew Johns.

The fans are passionate and parochial. Give them reason to jump on the bandwagon, and Hunter Stadium will regularly be bursting at the seams.The last few years have been frustrating and even demoralising for all involved.

Both clubsare back in a familiar position, as cash-strapped underdogs, largely devoid of superstars,trying to compete with big-city Silvertails.It’s times like these, perhaps more than ever, that they need everyone’s support.

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