Smith leads Knights out of their 'darkest' days
LAST year Brian Smith was arguably the most unpopular man in Newcastle.
The former Casino junior turned NRL coach left Parramatta to take control of the Knights where he immediately angered supporters by axing a host of senior players, including Kirk Reynoldson and Clint Newton, in favour of investing in young talent.
The cleanout sparked a feud with captain Danny Buderus and drew public criticism from Newcastle business owners and media commentators.
His star halfback Andrew Johns retired after injuring his neck early in the season and only a last-round win saved them from the wooden spoon.
It was a time referred to by some as the darkest period in the club's history, and Smith copped most of the blame for it.
Tonight, Smith is 80 minutes away from a maiden finals berth with the Knights and while it's too early to say if he has won back the fans, a win over the Broncos in Brisbane would certainly win him some friends in Newcastle.
“None of us had any idea [at the start of the season] of where we'd be now,” Smith told The Northern Star this week.
“There was a bit of apprehension in some people and a bit of mystery in our side.
“Even from me and the senior players.
“We were hopeful we'd do well. We have a crop of guys - Ben Cross, Steve Simpson, Danny Buderus, Adam McDougal - and if you could get them to play well, and regularly, we'd be hard to beat.
“(But) most of those guys haven't played extensively. Some of the guys we've brought in. Some of the guys we developed last year - Cory Paterson, James McManus, Chris Houston and Junior Sau - all those guys have played a significant role for us.”
Smith has a history with previous clubs St George and Parramatta of going in and rebuilding from the junior level up and the success of his younger players this season highlights the need for last year's cull.
“That's why I was so excited about coming to the Knights. They have a history of producing tremendous players through their ranks and that takes a bit longer, four, five years of development to play at NRL standard,” Smith said.
“As a club we've really started to assist with the development of boys in 16s, 17s, 18s (age groups) to create opportunities to come and play with the big boys.
“I think it's easier for people to see what we're trying to do, we had a picture in our heads of what was possible.
“Some people were not included in that and again emotion cuts in, nobody likes to see local boys cut, so it was a bit of a mixed-up time.”
After 25 rounds Newcastle are eighth thanks in part to an emotionally-charged upset win over competition favourites Melbourne Storm last weekend.
It was a win Smith described as one of the best of his career.
“I think in view of the circumstances, that's what footy is about: It's an emotional experience,” he said.
“With all the emotion and shock of Danny's (Buderus' injury forced) retirement from the Knights, old boys' day of the Knights' club and the last home game of the season is always an emotive thing.
"Obviously, we were playing to stay in the race for the play-off series and the fact we were playing one of the really great teams over a long period of time.
“It was a lot for our young team to handle.”
But knowing the Knights have to beat the Broncos to keep their season alive, Smith isn't getting too carried away.
“I don't think there's anything more challenging to do than beat Brisbane in Brisbane,” he said.
The public scrutiny and big city stadiums make his Casino childhood seem like a lifetime ago.
“You'd better believe it,” he said.
“At the beginning of this season, even looking back on last season seemed like a different life.
“But that's humanity. I'm not sure if I am human any more after coaching this long.
“Some of the memories from things I did as a kid stand out way more than what I did last year.
“Memories of life in Casino and footy was a significant part of my life.”
“There was a bit of apprehension in some people and a bit of mystery in our side”