Blame me and no-one else: Arthur reflects on season to forget
At almost this exact time last year, Brad Arthur agreed to do a similar interview.
A few days out from Parramatta's first finals appearance in eight years, Arthur suggested to meet at an Oatlands coffee shop.
He agreed, albeit after months of persuasion, to tell the story of how his team came back from a salary cap saga that almost tore the club apart 12 months earlier.
But every few minutes the interview stopped. Some wanted photos. Others just wanted to tell him how proud they were.
Twelve months on and Arthur reluctantly agrees to do a similar interview about a completely contrasting season.
"Same place as last year?" he is asked.
"No. Just come to training." Arthur texts back.
Arthur doesn't enjoy the spotlight at the best of times. But this year it's different.
"Mate, I'm embarrassed to leave the house," he says sitting on the veranda of the club's demountable facility sipping on a lemon-ginger Kombucha as he waits for his players to return from lunch.
"I'm certainly not out there partying it up and putting myself out there in the public eye. Because it is... it's embarrassing. I'm the face of this club in terms of our performance. I take full responsibility for it.
"I'm embarrassed of where we sit on the table and the number of games of footy we've won. No one is to blame but me. The buck stops with me. I got us into this situation and I know I can get us out of it."
If not at the club's training base in North Parramatta or Wrights Road Reserve – the home of the Rouse Hill Rhinos where his kids play – Arthur is rarely seen in public.
"It's hard for my family," he told NRL.com.
"I can't remember the last time I took my wife or kids out for dinner. But they're on this ride with me. They understand some of the sacrifices of this job and there's definitely some good in it too."
The embarrassment has eaten away at him, but there is still a resounding sense of pride in a lot of aspects of a football team that has simply not delivered in 2018.
"I want to make it clear I'm certainly not embarrassed of the effort my staff have put in," he said.
"I'm not embarrassed of the players. I'm not embarrassed by the club or the people of this club."
In the past, such performances would have likely culminated with the coach's head on the chopping block, such was the reactive nature of the board.
But this board has already assured Arthur he will be around next year to at least see out the final year of his contract.
It's a similar show of faith Arthur displayed in 2015, when Manly privately approached him about joining the club on a deal worth almost three times as much as the Eels were paying him at the time.
It appears that loyalty has somewhat been repaid but Arthur is reminded of the impending circus, just like it did Des Hasler in his final year the Bulldogs, that will follow his every move next season as the Eels weigh up his future at the club.
"I've been here for five years. Tell me when there hasn't been pressure situations to deal with," he said.
"Can it get any worse? Getting an extension is great, but it's not my priority. It's about making sure the club is in a better place when I leave than when I first arrived.
"Whether that's next year or that's in 10 years, I can't put myself first and make decisions based on what I need to do to save my job. It won't happen. I love this club too much to jeopardise its future."
It's not the first time Arthur has had to deal with the pressure of uncertainty around job security.
At ANZ Stadium against the Wests Tigers in round seven last year, with his team trailing with 10 minutes on the clock, Arthur thought he was one more siren away from the end.
"We won our first two games last year and everyone was saying 'We're going to win the comp'," he said.
"Then we lost our next four games and with 10 minutes to go in that game against the Tigers we're behind and I thought 'If we lose I'm looking for a new job the next day'.
The Eels went on to win that game and 13 of the next 17 thereafter. Arthur was hailed the saviour.
This week, as they prepared to head to Melbourne, the Eels watched last year's semi-final loss at AAMI Park.
It showed how close they were to a premiership. It also highlighted how far they've fallen.
"Maybe we got comfortable at the start of the year?" Arthur said.
"Maybe we just thought it was going to happen? There are a lot of maybes. So many maybes."
As much as the fans want it, there isn't just one single answer as to why it has unravelled in the manner in which it has in such a short period of time.
No review will tell you why. But it hasn't stopped Arthur from racking his brain trying to work out some of the factors that may have contributed to the nightmare that has been 2018.
"We probably did some things in the pre-season, looking back at them now, I would have done them differently," Arthur said.
"Maybe I overloaded them in terms of growing leadership within the group, and maybe we went too far with that with some of the stuff we did in the preseason trying to give them too much control of the team. We tried to go from me being in total control of everything to too much the other way.
"Maybe we should have done it in smaller increments without adding too much pressure on them. I don't know. They are all what ifs. You'll never know but maybe we did try and change too much from the year before."
So did you ever feel like you lost the players? Did you have to ask them?
"It's an emphatic no on both accounts. I never asked them and I never felt the need to because no one here has ever given up," he said.
What about talks these blokes don’t get along?
"There's never been disharmony here," Arthur said. "Unless you know something?"
It's hard to know anything unless you're inside the four walls, but we've all heard the rumours. Corey Norman hates the coach. Jarryd Hayne has had a destabilising impact. The halves don't get along. Players are being told to look elsewhere. There's a poor culture.
It's all over social media, Brad.
"I don't know how to use social media," he says.
"I'm sure there are plenty of people unhappy with what's happening and have done their fair share of criticising. But our true supporters, in my eyes, have stuck by us. They would be happy with what they are seeing the last eight weeks. There were a lot of rumours at the start of the year, but that comes when you're not performing. Things about blokes not getting along.
"They always got along at training and off the field but that doesn't always mean they are going to get along on the field. If you're in the position we were at the start of the year, you're going to have blokes who are disgruntled and show emotion and be pissed off with each other. It's just natural."
Arthur would change things if he had his time again. They've tried to change things on the run. They moved the players' day off to three days before a game instead of two. They injected some rookies and will add Blake Ferguson, Junior Paulo and Shaun Lane to the roster in 2019.
Arthur knows they lost some football experience in letting go of veteran trainer Ronnie Palmer to the Wests Tigers.
He also acknowledges the impact of the club's inability to replace assistant coach Peter Gentle (South Sydney) with David Kidwell until round seven.
"I shouldered a bit of the workload but the reality is the players got sick of hearing the same person over and over again," Arthur said.
"Trying to do defence, contact, wrestle, game plan, the whole lot between me and Steve Murphy because we didn't have the ability to replace Peter Gentle straight away. Bringing Kiddy in has helped that getting a different voice and a different way of explaining things to the boys.
"Being down a coach might have been a burden on everyone around here. You have to delegate to the people around you in this day and age. Players need to hear different voices. They were just hearing mine all day."
What Arthur saw on game day in most cases this year wasn't reflective of what he'd seen on the training field for the five days prior.
"At one stage there we discussed that we've nearly become a track work team," he said.
"We had become professional trainers but we couldn't get the job done on the field."
At the start of the year many were tipping the Eels as premiership frontrunners. After six weeks they were favourites for the spoon.
"I think the weight of expectation became a burden on the players," he said.
It was territory all too familiar for the blue and gold faithful. But Arthur hopes the last two months has given the fans some hope heading into a new era in 2019 with the new Western Sydney Stadium opening in late April.
"People might say 'Where was this at the start of the year?', but we can't change it," he said.
"The last eight games we've looked like the team we wanted to be. We've played consistent footy for eight weeks. It doesn't mean we've won all those games – we won 50 per cent of them – but every one of those games our fans would have thought at some stage we were going to win that game."
NRL.com interviewed new Eels chairman Sean McElduff last week. He said the coach would be judged on a number of things in his final year on contract. He wouldn't confirm it was finals or bust for Arthur, but the coach is under no illusions as to what is required next year.
"At the end of the day I know we will be judged by wins and losses," he said.
"It's as simple as that. I haven't done any less or more this year than I did last year. But what I get paid to do, I haven't delivered. It's results. That's all there is to it. If I deserve it I will earn it."