Brad Arthur knows all about the glory years. He has a photo of himself with Mick Cronin at Cumberland Oval from 1981 stashed away in the family home to prove it. Mum and Dad are Eels tragics. Nan attended almost every match. Oh, the memories.
But to Arthur, reflecting on Parramatta’s past only highlights the failures of a club that has been waiting three decades to relive its former glories.
“It’s great that we have a really good history but, seriously, this place just can’t be about the `80s all the time,” Arthur says in a reluctant interview with Fairfax Media on the eve of the club’s return to the finals series. “It’s time we started creating our own piece of history.”
Tim Mannah sums it up best. He’d know. Together with Jarryd Hayne, the pair were the most vocal in their support for Arthur when it seemed a fait accompli the board would appoint Jason Taylor as Ricky Stuart’s successor after a horror 2013 campaign.
“Man, that was a rough year,” the captain says.
“Half our playing squad got sacked. Our coach walked out on us and there wasn’t any light at the end of the tunnel. Then Brad walked in.”
This story has been two years in the making. That’s how long it has taken to convince Arthur to drop his guard, sit down for a coffee and tell it how it is.
He only did it when convinced this was what the supporters wanted. That they wanted to hear his story.
Yeah, of course. But how can you tell the story of how Parramatta were able to recover from a massive salary cap scandal that ripped the club apart to reach their first finals in eight years the very next season without talking about the man responsible?
Arthur doesn’t like the attention. Hates it. And he goes to great lengths to avoid it.
“If we go to dinner with friends out at Rouse Hill, we go early,” Arthur says in a rare insight into the man behind the coach. “My wife, Michelle, knows I want to get in and out. She gets asked all the time to go places and she says, ‘No, Brad won’t go.’ I’d rather sit here and everyone walk past and not know who I was. But yeah, I know, it comes with the job.”
Indeed it does. And right on cue, just as he finishes explaining how uncomfortable he feels being the centre of attention, the interview comes to a halt.
“Please, excuse me,” a middle-aged man walking through a little shopping strip in Oatlands says. “I just wanted to congratulate you, mate.
“Fantastic. I’ve been an Eels supporter since I was born. Lived in the area, went to Parra Marist and played for Marist. Mate, you’re doing a sensational job there. We’re proud of your efforts. Everyone that I know is really proud of you. True blue and gold, mate. Honestly, you can stand tall and proud, mate. You’re doing a great job.”
Arthur’s discomfort is clear. In typical fashion, he plays down his role in the transformation of the club. “We’ve got a good bunch of boys down there,” he replies. “Everyone’s really good.”
But this particular fan isn’t having any of it. “No, mate, it’s the man that makes it click,” he says. You know how to talk to them.”
Arthur has always been well received by the Parra fans. The same can’t be said of other coaches who have taken on the poisoned chalice of trying to bring back the blue-and-gold glory days.
It says much about Arthur that his popularity endures despite the fans having suffered some difficult times in the four years they have been waiting to play finals football under his watch.
Perhaps it’s because the supporters could finally see that even though they were not making regular finals appearances, their team was having a good, old-fashioned dig? Maybe it’s because Arthur, with the help of his wife, replies to every fan who writes to him, whether they are offering support, criticism or coaching advice.
“You know what, they’re entitled to their opinion,” Arthur says. “Without them, I wouldn’t have a bloody job. Whether they love you or don’t like you, you need them. That’s why we always get back to them.”
Or perhaps they see what Mannah saw when he fronted the board with Hayne to vouch for Arthur four years ago.
“Ricky was a good coach, but I don’t think he fit the culture at our club,” Mannah says. “Brad gets Parramatta. It’s engraved in him. That shows in the way he goes about it and the passion he shows. He’s made for this club.”
It’s that love and commitment to the Eels that kept Arthur from walking away when any sane man would have jumped ship.
A few years ago, he had the opportunity to leave behind the political infighting, the turmoil, the drama and the back-stabbing.
He had a job waiting for him at another club. Probably for more money, too. Why didn’t he leave?
“The players. And also, this is my area, this is where I’m from,” he says. “It’s not my club, but I played junior footy here. Everyone keeps saying when Parramatta get it right, it’s the sleeping giant of the NRL. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be part of the team that made it possible. Also the coaching staff – Peter Gentle and Steve Murphy have been through just as much as I have.
“Never at any stage did they say this is all too hard. They have had my back. I trust them with my life. Blokes like Tim Mannah made a lot of commitments and sacrifices for this club. He was really strong and supportive of me earlier in the piece. Blokes like that, you develop a bit of a bond with these blokes. It’s hard to walk away from that.”
You’d imagine he maybe would have become bitter with those responsible last year for almost tearing down everything he had tried to build since taking on the head coaching role in 2014.
But he bears no grudges. Even though last year he coached his side to enough wins to play finals football the Eels still had the same Mad Monday schedule as the wooden-spooners.
“I know a lot of people had their names tarnished, but everyone who has been here in the past has contributed in some way to where we are now,” Arthur says. “Like our training facilities, the old board were responsible for getting that together.”
OK, so no grudges. How about regrets?
“No, because everything that has happened has led us to where we stand right now.”
Then a pause as he rushes off to help an elderly lady pick up the avocados she spilt leaving the shop. “Actually, there is one thing,” he says as he returns to the table.
Here we go. Kieran Foran? Anthony Watmough? Jarryd Hayne? Nathan Peats?
“In that first year in 2014, I went against my gut instinct in the Newcastle game up there in round 25. We won the toss and had the strong breeze and we elected to run into it when my gut feeling was to go against it. I went against my instinct. I reckon that cost us the semis. We win that game, we play finals football.”
So hang on. Salary cap scandal, high-profile player departures, criminal investigations, board member sackings, off-field dramas … but the one regret he has in four years is not running against the wind?
“Yeah, because I always go with my gut instinct, but that day I was influenced to change my mind,” he says.
The Eels lost that game. And the next. They missed the finals and in the ensuing days lost their megastar fullback to the NFL.
Just as it looked as if they were building to something, Arthur had to start again.
“I’m grateful because I was given an opportunity on the back of no success, really, until now,” he says. “That’s allowed me to stick to the plan and look at the long-term vision of what the club should look like. But, the demands are now that we need to be successful.
“Every week you feel like you’re under the pump. Every week you need the results. As soon as you lose one game, you can’t lose the next. You lose two, the pressure becomes great.”
Arthur has always been renowned as a players’ coach. So many have joined the club just to play under him. But why did the club, which had already decided on Taylor, decide to take a punt on a relative unknown.
“I don’t know. I think I got lucky,” Arthur says. “Jason Taylor had the job and I was on my way to Bali. We were in the car in the tunnel getting into the airport when my phone rang. Because I had been told that I had the job, didn’t have the job. It was on and off.
“Then they rang me and told me I got it. I was on the phone the whole time I was checking in. I got on the plane and got to the other end and it was all done.”
The players say the club would have fallen apart last year if it wasn’t for Arthur. In a club stripped of 12 competition points, most would have lost the will to fight. But under Arthur their resolve only strengthened.
“I was their leader. My responsibility was to the players,” he says. “And also to our fans and members. We said right at the start that we wanted to be a team that created our own history. If we were going to do that we couldn’t be known as a team that gives up or doesn’t care.
“A lot of these guys had been here a long time and been through some hard times. They were sick of it. They had enough of it. They wanted to be competitive. They wanted to win.”