Andrew Johns for the Knights

Andrew Johns is Newcastle’s most important signing for 2020

As a youngster, one of my favourite sights on a footy field was the rare occasion when Andrew Johns dropped the ball.

It wasn’t schadenfreude on my part, nor was it relief at evidence the man was in fact fallible.

No, what I enjoyed was how filthy on himself he would be in the aftermath – and woe betide the teammate who would offer a kind word.

If someone was fool enough to pat him on the back – “Don’t worry, Joey, you’ll get the next one” – he would give them an almighty spray.

Because what consolation could a man of flesh and blood offer a future Immortal?

As for the reason I enjoyed it, it was because there was never any better evidence of how much Joey loved to win. Or maybe it was that he hated to lose. I’m not sure of the difference, but the man’s competitive fire had a can of petrol poured over it when he made a mistake.

Which is why the Knights need to do whatever they can to bring the greatest player in the club’s history back into the fold.

Andrew Johns for the Knights

(AAP Image/Action Photographics/Grant Trouville)

Since his 2007 retirement, Johns has been largely absent from the Hunter. And I sort of understand why.

He cast an enormous shadow and the Knights needed some breathing room following his departure. Honestly, Joey probably needed some breathing room from the club as well.

But after more than a decade both parties have had plenty of oxygen, and now his absence is starting to become deflating.

Besides being the greatest player of all time – pipe down in the peanut gallery; he was – he is also one of the most astute minds in rugby league and a proven winner as an assistant coach.

Most importantly, he was signed to the club as a youngster not on the basis of his footballing brilliance but for his dogged determination.

Joey’s brother related the story on a recent episode of The Matty Johns Podcast.

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“When he trialled for the Knights [under] 15s, he had a growing disease in his leg, which was undiagnosed – Osgood-Schlatters,” Matty explained to another Newcastle sporting legend, Craig Johnston.

“He had it in both legs. He turned up to trial and I remember watching him as his older brother. It was so embarrassing.

“It was so bad, he couldn’t get out of a shuffle. The crowd were laughing.

“The coach, David Waite, said, ‘I’ll sign that kid. If he’s got the guts to go out there and play with that, there’s something special about him’.”

Guts and determination made Newcastle the club it was to become.

And a lack of it led to the debacle the Knights have been for the latter half of this decade.

Andrew Johns smiles as he's presented to Newcastle fans in 2017

(Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Despite having been pulled out of a financial death spiral and featuring a team full of representative talent, the past two months show that the current crop are still crippled by attitudes and mindsets that set in over the past few years of embarrassment.

The squad assembled for 2019 should have been jostling for a place in the top four. And with the nucleus of the side set to stick around, this should be the case again in 2020.

But the first-grade side need someone who understands the true fabric of the place to come in and impose those values upon them.

And who better to do it than the bloke who is such an integral part of the club’s history that he’s got a grandstand named after him at their home ground? The players would surely respond to him – if not because he’s a true legend of the game, then because he’d be terrifying at training after a limp loss.

What’s more, Johns clearly still cares deeply for the joint where he played all 249 of his first-grade games – why else would he have gone nuclear last week with his “sabotaged” comments?

As for saying on Channel Nine that there didn’t need to be a “Newcastle person” coaching the club – “The only person who’s qualified to do that is Danny Buderus, and I’ve spoken to Bedsy and he’s got absolutely no interest in doing it,” Johns said – I couldn’t agree more.

The Knights should go through the process, find the best head coach and appoint them, regardless of their links to the club or city.

But there does need to be some link. Someone who understands what made the Newcastle Knights great, can impart that wisdom now and help re-establish that culture.

That person is Andrew Johns. And Wests Group should move heaven and earth to bring the eighth Immortal home.

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