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The true story behind Brown's exit from Newcastle

After a week of criticism and scrutiny over the way the club has handled Nathan Brown's departure from the club, Newcastle chief executive Phil Gardner opens up to NRL.com chief reporter Michael Chammas to clear the air about the events that unfolded.

There's a spreadsheet on the computer of Newcastle director of football Brian Canavan that lists every prospective coach in rugby league.

It details their strengths, and their shortcomings.

It's a file that was created after the club's football committee meeting earlier this month, at which they had come to an agreement that there would be a review at the end of the season, especially given the string of losses at the time.

"I told Browny that would be happening," Gardner told NRL.com on Tuesday night.

"He was aware that there would be a review."

In the weeks that followed, Gardner instructed Canavan and recruitment manager Troy Pezet to add to the spreadsheet.

So together, they canvased the NRL and began to get a gauge of who was out there and if indeed they would be better alternatives to Brown – if that was the direction the club was to head down in the off-season.

You can only take Gardner on his word, but he insists that the intention was to inform Brown that the club was doing its due diligence when the pair were scheduled to meet for their regular catch-up last Monday.

What you're seeing from agents is a get-square. They see an opportunity and they go for the throat.

Phil GardnerKnights CEO

"I have a list of every assistant coach and coach, and their strengths and weaknesses. As I do every player from under 16s right the way through," Gardner said.

"That's what any competent CEO and management team would do. We had that all done. We were looking at doing a review at the end of the year, and we have to have the opportunity to look at that to make decisions.

"It was my intention to have that discussion with Nathan on that Monday in our regular catch-up. He came in and he resigned. And he told me that he'd already told his coaches and some of his players. Nathan thought he was doing me a favour. Once that was done, we had nowhere to go. We couldn't say let's defer this for three weeks. We accepted it.

"I was certainly blindsided by it. He did it for all the right reasons, no negativity in that. That's Nathan. He makes those decisions and follows through on them. We both felt clearly that the players would lift for him and expected to have three good performances. Had we won on Saturday everything would have been fine."

Gardner is adamant no one at the club met with a prospective coach, refuting suggestions Pezet had already met with Roosters assistant coach Adam O'Brien.

But whatever digging that had been done by members of the club had got back to Brown and culminated in his decision to fall on his sword.

"Pezzy, to my knowledge, has not had any meetings with any coaches because he's not authorised to have meetings with coaches," Gardner said.

"The only person who is, is me. Brian Canavan did a desktop of all the coaches and assistant coaches in the game. He's been in the game for 18 years. Brian Canavan did that. Pezzy is the recruitment manager, he talks to all the agents all the time.

"Whether the agents like him or dislike him, what you're seeing from agents is a get-square. They see an opportunity and they go for the throat."

Knights CEO addresses media

Why did Brown leave immediately?

After the embarrassing loss to the Wests Tigers on Saturday night in Campbelltown, Brown told his players that he would walk if they didn't want him around.

He then followed it up with a phone call to Gardner on Monday morning, asking to meet with him at midday.

"He told me in his view that it was best for the club, given what happened on the weekend, for him to go," Gardner said.

"I said to him that we'd agreed to try and stand shoulder to shoulder and tough this out. He said 'mate, if you want me to keep doing that I will, but I don't think it's in the best interest of the club'."

That night, Gardner spoke to the club's board members, who requested the chief executive speak to the senior players before a decision was reached.

Therefore Mitchell Pearce, David Klemmer, Tim Glasby, Jamie Buhrer, Aiden Guerra and Shaun Kenny-Dowall were summoned to the club's Wests Mayfield headquarters on Tuesday morning.

They met with Brown and Gardner, and it was assumed an understanding was reached that the coach would remain on.

However at lunchtime the players collectively received a message asking to meet the coach at 2pm, where he informed them that his reign was over.

"There had been a lot of pressure from a number of high-profile figures in the game who said when you make a change you need to do it straight away," Gardner said in relation to comments made by Phil Gould on Channel Nine's 100% Footy on Monday night.

"I think Nathan has been talking to those people. You know who I'm referring to. That was certainly his view. Everybody in this club loves and has respect for Nathan. He is one of the best people you will ever meet … but you get to a stage with every coach where people stop listening and you know it.

"He knew it. He knew, not me. That's why he resigned. He knew yesterday they weren't listening and it was time to make the change. It just took me a while to get there. I got there this afternoon. It was in Nathan's best interest and the club's best interest for him to go now."

Pearce: We let the coach down

Kalyn Ponga's future and the milkshake comments

In the hours after Brown confirmed to the team last week that 2019 would be his last season in charge, the players were due to front the media.

Before doing so, Brown fronted the players and specifically asked them not to feel sorry for him.

He told them "don't stick up for me, don't defend me, just get on with it".

So that's what Ponga tried to do. A 21-year-old who, in a bid to downplay the severity of what had transpired as instructed by his coach, said he wasn't too sad because he was having a strawberry milkshake at the time.

Granted, poor choice of words. He knows that, now. But it came from the right place.

"There's not a better kid than KP, but he's a kid," Gardner said.

"He just got caught with the words."

There's been a lot made of Ponga's future over the past few months, but Gardner insists recent suggestions that the Knights refused to discuss an upgrade while Wayde Rushton remained his manager couldn't be further from the truth. As it stands, Ponga's contract with Rushton expires next October.

"I laugh when people think I'm going to have any impact on [Ponga's father] Andre and the family in relation to how KP is going to be managed," Gardner said.

"If I could get KP upgraded and extended now I would do it. That's the facts. But the family, Andre, KP and the family have to want to do it. It's not up to me. They won't take advice from me or anyone else. They'll do what they think is right. We're very lucky to have KP at our club.

"I know for a fact that KP will stay in Newcastle for less money. But he has to play in a winning system. He wants success. He has to know he can have success here, so we have to deliver a successful system and a successful football club if we want to have the players of Kalyn Ponga's stature in the game play for us."

Knights set to announce O'Brien as new head coach

Despite reports suggesting Ponga wants $6 million over four years the Knights insist those figures haven't been mentioned to them, nor have the family asked to discuss an extension.

Andre Ponga recently told NRL.com that they were in no rush to sort out his future, indicating that they wouldn't entertain contract talks until at least the end of next year.

"We've got 2020 and 2021 – we want to wait until then," Andre Ponga said on June 13.

"To some people that might sound stupid, but that's what we believe is best for him. People are saying he should take it when he can get it, but in 2021 – let's say he goes backwards, that's what he is worth. That's his value then. To me, that's the reality.

"If it goes wrong, then so be it. He will be whatever value he is at the time. I know it's not the way of thinking in the footy world, but it's the way we think."

Gardner and the Knights respect the Ponga family's wishes, despite their appetite to lock the superstar fullback up on a longer-term deal.

"If we talk to Andre and Adine and they tell us we need to talk to him [Wayde Rushton], or whoever it might be, if we have to do that to upgrade and extend Kalyn we would do it," Gardner said.

"But we're mindful and respectful of where Andre and the family sit with all this and we'll roll through that with them. As I said before, I honestly believe it's not about money. He will stay here for less money.

"In the world there are two people who wants the best for Kalyn – Andre and Adine. Under that, I think I'm one of the people who want the best for KP. If that's here with us then that's great, but if that's somewhere else, we'll be the proudest people when Kalyn becomes whatever he's going to become. He's already a fine human being and we're proud of him."

Knights coach Nathan Brown.
Knights coach Nathan Brown. ©Paul Barkley/NRL Photos

How the Knights have handled this

The Knights have been battered from pillar to post for the way they have conducted business however the one thing Gardner would change doesn't revolved around the past week.

The Knights chief executive has made the stunning claim that he was guilty of being too supportive of Brown, perhaps opening the door for complacency to settle in.

In particular, Gardner is referring to comments made to The Daily Telegraph last month in which he said "from my perspective, there has to be some major issue for Nathan not to be our coach next year, and I just can't see that happening".

Gardner admits he's learned from his mistakes.

"Ten weeks ago, we should've done more to ensure we didn't have that run of losses," Gardner said.

"We've had eight losses and two wins since. I think the coach and I should've had much stronger conversations. My view was support the coach to the death. In all this that's what I have tried to do, support him as much as we can to get the leadership group there.

"In hindsight, 10 weeks ago I should've been much more emphatic, I think, in driving a change, rather than supporting the coach. I was too supportive. We should've been more on the front foot with him around that process. Again, it's hindsight. In future, that won't be the case."

Gardner has also taken responsibility for not deciding to part ways with Brown last week after he tendered his resignation.

He says it's unfair to blame the players, despite their poor showing against the Tigers in a match that had huge finals ramifications.

"The criticism could be quite rightly levelled at me that I should've done this the week before," Gardner said.

"I cop that. We've done it now, and maybe it is a week too late. If that's the case, that's all on me, it's not on the players."

When will the Knights announce their plans for the future?

As reported by NRL.com on Monday, it was expected the Knights would announce Adam O'Brien as Brown's successor at the end of this week.

However that might now be pushed back until the following week given the events of the past 24 hours.

Despite the club being adamant that it will speak to a number of coaches, there's only one man in line for the job and they are now sorting out the details of the contract.

While Brown agreed to a performance-based contract, you can almost be assured that O'Brien and his management will be successful in their bid to have a traditional contract.

The Knights want to announce it sooner rather than later, with the Roosters demanding it doesn't drag into the finals and become a distraction in their quest to win back-to-back titles.