Garth Brennan was a blonde-mulleted 16-year-old sitting on the hill at the Newcastle International Sports Centre when the Newcastle Knights made their premiership debut in 1988.
Like his close mates and thousands of kids in the crowd of 26,340 that day, Brennan envisaged the day he too would wear the red and blue 'Henny Penny' jersey.
The reality of playing at rugby league’s highest level without leaving home was sinking in as the likes of Tony Butterfield, Sam Stewart and Glenn Frendo became local legends in an instant.
For the third time in a fledgling coaching career that has its roots in Newcastle, Brennan will coach against the team he once dreamed of representing when the Titans host the Knights on Sunday.
Twelve months after the Knights’ entry into the New South Wales Rugby League, Brennan – a crafty fullback who idolised Parramatta halfback Peter Sterling – was a 17-year-old playing for Wests in Newcastle’s top grade, mixing it with country hard-heads and former Sydney first graders always eager to keep cocky kids in check.
Captain-coached by former Rabbitohs and Panthers five-eighth Neil Baker, Brennan was good enough to represent the Knights’ SG Ball and Jersey Flegg teams alongside Matthew Johns, but a broken wrist and acceptance into the police academy in 1992 sent him down a different path.
Titans v Knights - Round 6
After receiving his first posting with the police force in Sydney – where he trialled with Parramatta – Brennan continued to return to Newcastle on weekends with mixed motivations; partly to play footy with his mates and partly to see his girlfriend at the time.
Not long after being posted to the small six-man station at Beresfield near Maitland, Brennan moved into plain clothes duties until a return to 12-hour shift work impacted too heavily on his footy commitments.
“Law bored me to tears but football worked with it because we were working court hours. We were done by 4 o’clock every day,” he tells NRL.com of his move into police prosecution.
Fascinated by the way in which the top teams played rather than having unwavering devotion to one team – “I loved Alfie Langer’s quick tap or the passing game of Ricky Stuart” – Brennan made good on his promise to himself to quit playing by the age of 30 and took the first step in a journey that would lead all the way to the NRL.
After coaching Wests Newcastle to successive reserve grade titles in 2001 and 2002, Brennan served as Rip Taylor’s assistant for the Knights' Jersey Flegg team from 2003-2006 and then brought the likes of Tyrone Roberts and Boyd Cordner through in the 2007 Harold Matthews team as head coach.
Across a nine-year period Brennan studied closely the coaching styles of first Michael Hagan and then Brian Smith and was often called upon to assist as the referee for first grade training sessions.
“This was the time when the Knights had guys like Andrew Johns and Ben Kennedy,” Brennan recalls.
“You needed a therapy session after getting in the middle of that. They were ultra-competitive.”
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It gave him a taste of what was to come and after furthering his coaching education at Penrith for six years was appointed head coach of the Titans in October 2017, holding firm to the tenets of those early Newcastle Knights sides.
"I love the Knights mantra that they've had from day one and that's to be the player other players want to play with,” he says.
“Under Allan McMahon they also had the three Ts. You had to be tough, you had to be able to tackle and you had to have plenty of tomorrows.
"For me, as a coach, I'm not overly technical, but you’ve got to be tough, you've got to be able to tackle and you've got to be the player that other players want to play with. That's Newcastle.
"Newcastle never had the biggest, strongest or fastest blokes coming through but they never gave up.
"When I think of Newcastle I think of a team that's never going to quit. That's been shown the last few years that the fans believe in that. They turn up because they know they're going to have a crack.
“Newcastle is a tough town. Tough people and a tough town. It's not a flashy place but the people are real. They work hard and they party hard too.
“It played a massive role in shaping me not only as a coach but as a person.”