The Newcastle Knights will look to Wayne Bennett and the powerful Wests Group to ensure their NRL viability, after Nathan Tinkler’s announcement that his ownership of the club is officially over.
Tinkler released a blazing statement on Friday to confirm his exit, blaming new custodians, the Knights Members Club, for stalling handover negotiations and going to great lengths to talk up the ways in which Hunter Sports Group (HSG) had benefited Newcastle.
The mining magnate’s departure was being widely celebrated in league circles on Friday, but the road ahead for the embattled Newcastle club, its players and staff remains uncertain, with accounts and liabilities – well into the millions of dollars – still to be settled.
Head of the Knights Members Club Nick Dan confirmed keeping supercoach Bennett at the helm and enlisting the financial help of local leagues club Wests Group would be crucial in Newcastle’s ability to rebuild from the crisis.
Bennett has a year to run on his contract, but is uncertain about what his future holds and has been linked to a return to Brisbane next year.
Dan said the seven-time premiership winner could play a significant role in convincing players to stay.
“Yes I do. All we want to do is keep things going along steadily and keep the football side of things going as professionally as he’s got them going,” Dan told AAP.
Now that Tinkler is gone, the Knights Members Club will ramp up negotiations with Wests Group, who could play a role as co-owners or, at the very least, sponsors.
“They have certainly said they would do what they could to ensure the Knights stay viable,” said Dan, who expects it will take a week to settle the transition with HSG and the NRL.
Knights great Andrew Johns defended Tinkler’s tenure and remained positive about the future, telling the Nine Network: “The town would never let the club go under.”
Asked if Bennett would say, Johns said: “I think he’ll stay for this year … the end of this year.”
In his lengthy statement, Tinkler said he’d “done his bit”.
“This negotiation process has dragged on for over 10 weeks and it’s clear the Members Club has stalled the process,” he said.
“After injecting $20 million of my own money, it’s time to stand aside … I have done my bit for the town by investing more than $20 million and saving the Knights from liquidation. Now it’s time for someone else to step up to the plate.
“The debts of the club are substantially less than the $10.5 million which is currently sitting in a bank account and not earning interest.”
The man who ensured that bank guarantee was in place when Tinkler first took over – former Knights chief executive Steve Burraston – said he took no pleasure in seeing HSG’s reign collapse.
However, he wasn’t surprised.
“Definitely not. That’s why we put so many safety nets within the agreement,” Burraston told AAP.
“I certainly believed there was a lot of doubt about the structure of the organisation going forward.
“Unfortunately, I thought our board at the time didn’t do due diligence on the Tinkler Sports Group which I was urging them to do. The cracks were definitely there.”
Burraston said he had no doubt the Knights would be able to prosper without Tinkler in charge, denying Newcastle were in anywhere near the amount of financial trouble claimed by HSG when they took control in 2011.
“Troy Palmer (HSG chief executive) repeatedly said we were in six million dollars debt. The Knights were in about $2.5 million of debt at the time and we knew we could clearly overcome that debt in the years coming forward,” he said.
“Essentially it was a break-even club.”
Burraston said Tinkler’s exit meant the Knights could re-engage with the Newcastle community, who they lost touch with during the HSG era, costing them in ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorship.
The Tinkler-owned Newcastle Jets A-League club said the Knights’ ownership change had no impact on their future.