A city doing it tough: What Cowboys can take from Knights of 1990

Michael Hagan saw first-hand what a football team means to its community.

When he returned home from a Christmas holiday on the Gold Coast for his second season at the Knights in 1990, Hagan was faced with the stark reality of a city in ruin.

An earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale had devastated the area surrounding the Newcastle Workers Club on December 28, 1989; nine club workers were among the 13 people who were killed with more than 160 others injured. Damage was reported at more than 35,000 homes, 150 schools and 3000 commercial premises; historic grandstands at local sporting grounds were demolished.

With the people of his city hurting, the late Allan McMahon reiterated to his Knights players the role they could play in Newcastle's recovery.

They needed a beacon of hope and the Knights provided it, missing out on a maiden finals berth in just their third season by losing 12-4 to Balmain in a playoff for fifth position.

Two days earlier the Knights had defeated the 1989 runners-up 16-14 in front of 32,217 people on home turf, a crowd number that has been bettered just once in the 29 years since.

Townsville has been devastated by floods in the past week.
Townsville has been devastated by floods in the past week. ©cowboys.com.au

In his book, Hard Yards, that details the first 30 years of the Knights, Robert Dillon recalls how the devastating events of December 28 tapped into the Novocastrian sense of community and how McMahon reminded his players of their place within it.

"If you lived in Newcastle and weren't directly affected by the earthquake, you knew someone who was," Dillon writes.

"Soon after the disaster, McMahon noticed a cartoon in The Star newspaper depicting a helping hand reaching down to rescue a quake victim, buried in rubble. It succinctly captured the essence of Novocastrian spirit.

"McMahon contacted the cartoonist, Mick Eggleston, and asked if he could tweak the emotive image by painting a blue-and-red Knights sleeve on the good Samaritan's arm. Eggleston obliged and McMahon hung the framed artwork in Newcastle's dressing room.

"The message to his players was clear: our city is doing it tough, but we can help lift their spirits."

"It was really traumatic," recalls Hagan, who assumed the captaincy from Sam Stewart early in the 1990 season.

"It took a couple of years before Newcastle really recovered from that.

"People lived their lives through the footy team back then; it was a real community asset that people gravitated to.

"In the early days the people coming to support the team at Marathon Stadium were working class, coal miners, paying their money to come and follow the footy team.

"We all felt a bit of a responsibility back then to aim up."

Given the similarities between two regional centres competing in the NRL, Hagan is adamant the Cowboys will this year also represent a symbol of hope for the people of Townsville.

The community of North Queensland enveloped the 2015 premiership-winning Cowboys when they were at their very highest; now the people of Townsville need their team to lift them out of their darkest days.

Cowboys players and staff have been amongst the thousands of Townsville locals who have been displaced during the devastating floods of the past week but have also stepped forward to lend a helping hand.

Images of the likes of John Asiata, Antonio Winterstein, Gavin Cooper and Scott Bolton rescuing people in their boats typifies the selflessness shown by Australians when it is needed most.

It will be weeks before many are able to return to their homes; in the case of back-rower Ethan Lowe such is the damage to his home that he may never be able to go back. Training sessions on Saturday and Monday had to be abandoned simply because players could not physically get to 1300SMILES Stadium.

For Hagan, the parallels to what Newcastle went through are obvious.

"We all got that feeling that people were doing it tough. People had either lost loved ones or property or had to rebuild their business, very much like Townsville now," said Hagan, who coached the Knights to their second premiership in 2001.

"That's going to be the theme up there, of starting again and having to rebuild.

"I've always thought that Townsville and Newcastle are very similar. Working-class town, love their footy, travel a long way to come and watch the team, they have the Army barracks and university, so it's a very similar landscape.

"Missing a week of training is not going to damage them too much and if they harness it the right way, what they and the people of Townsville are going through at the moment can definitely be a motivator."