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The unlikely allies who delivered Knights saviour

It's been six years now.

Some days the pain is so damn confronting, it feels like it happened yesterday.

Other days, when the sound of beautiful little Harriett McKinnon's laughter breaks the stare, it feels like it never happened at all.

Neither Alex McKinnon nor Craig Bellamy ever look back. The accident has never been brought up.

It's not in their character and speaks to the heart of both men and what they want their respective footy clubs at Newcastle and Melbourne to be.

Instead, McKinnon, Newcastle's head of recruitment, and Storm coach Bellamy chat about footy and different players.

 

McKinnon looked set for a huge onfield career. Photo: Renee McKay/Getty Images
McKinnon looked set for a huge onfield career. Photo: Renee McKay/Getty Images

 

Great leg speed, smart defender, clever kicking game, too lazy, too slow. Other times, they talk about life.

By phone they chat, often McKinnon, 27, hanging up wiser than when he first called, while Bellamy, 60, leaves the call, deeply aware of why Wayne Bennett once said the flame-haired backrower would one day captain NSW.

The phone call that optimises their characters happened late last year.

Not long after former Knights coach Nathan Brown quit, McKinnon rang Bellamy for an insight into what made his former assistant coach at the Storm of five years, Adam O'Brien, tick.

O'Brien's name was on Newcastle's short-list to replace Brown.

A few weeks after McKinnon and Bellamy nagged, O'Brien was appointed the Knights head coach - which gives you some understanding of how highly Newcastle CEO Phil Gardener rates McKinnon's opinion.

 

Bellamy isn’t an easy man to impress. Photo: AAP Image/Scott Barbour
Bellamy isn’t an easy man to impress. Photo: AAP Image/Scott Barbour

 

What McKinnon didn't know at the time was Bellamy was backing him, too, nudging O'Brien to use the former Dragons, Knights and Country Origin backrower in the hugely crucial role at Newcastle of head of recruitment and retention.

"Adam may not have even needed my advice or push,'' a modest Bellamy says. "But I knew that as soon as Adam met Alex, he would be sure that Alex was the right bloke for that job.

"Aside both being from small country towns who call a spade a spade, what I also know through talking to Alex is he was going to make a success of something with his life after the accident, no matter what.

"Because what I've learned is that he's got a really narrow focus on when he wants something. He does everything in his power to make a success of it

"There's not too many 27-year olds in that role and with that responsibility.

"To do what he's done, he's done a really good job," Bellamy adds. "And I'm sure he'll continue, too.''

 

The way in which McKinnon dealt with his injury earned respect through the game. Photo: Gregg Porteous
The way in which McKinnon dealt with his injury earned respect through the game. Photo: Gregg Porteous

 

Again, neither McKinnon or Bellamy like going back. But to appreciate what respect looks like and the very character of what Melbourne is built on and now, brick by brick, at Newcastle, we have to go back.

At a time where great clubs such as Canterbury and St George Illawarra are struggling to figure out what they want to be, or how to imbue the true essence of what makes a footy club successful, Bellamy believes strongly that McKinnon can deliver in arguably the most important job at a footy club.

Six years ago, the chances of McKinnon and Bellamy speaking were remote.

McKinnon's devastating spinal injury - suffered in a horrible tackle while playing Bellamy's Storm team in round 3 of the 2014 season - changed lives, none more so than the 27-year-old from Aberdeen in the Upper Hunter who was left wheelchair-bound.

O'Brien understands the immense pain, too, having watched on that cold Melbourne night from the Storm coaches' box, alongside Bellamy.

In the years that followed, tension and at-times detest was evident between the two clubs.

Yet in Gosford next weekend the two teams will play each other with barely a mention of the past.

 

It was McKinnon’s interest that brought Adam O'Brien to Newcastle. Photo: AAP Image/Darren Pateman
It was McKinnon’s interest that brought Adam O'Brien to Newcastle. Photo: AAP Image/Darren Pateman

 

McKinnon has never wanted anything for nothing, so he takes pride and great appreciation in Bellamy's backing, all too aware that one of the great coaches methods is to only back those who have earned it.

Even at the time of the accident, McKinnon, while indebted and appreciative of the overwhelming financial support both from the game and footy fans from across the world, struggled with feeling like he was a charity.

It was in direct conflict to how he was raised.

A single child, McKinnon had everything he wanted as a young boy, but few privileges or special treatment.

His father taught him how to be a leader - by that, a leader was someone who needed to care more about his under-9s teammates than winning man-of-the-match awards himself.

The best player every week, McKinnon never won one award.

He wouldn't change a thing, which is why McKinnon's ethics today haven't changed.

 

Alex McKinnon is moving forward in life. Photo: Peter Lorimer.
Alex McKinnon is moving forward in life. Photo: Peter Lorimer.

 

Through hard work and leadership, his precision-like build of the Knights' NRL roster belies those small percentage of fans who, from the side of their mouths, whisper McKinnon's prized role at Newcastle is nothing but a gift.

It's cheap thinking,

McKinnon signed NSW Origin forward Tyson Frizell at a cafe earlier this year, and without so much as a whisper from the 24/7 rugby league media, he secured Brisbane hooker Andrew McCullough, who makes his club debut against Canberra today.

But there's also the next crop he never stops analysing, on his laptop, or by driving his van down the F3 to Leichhardt Oval or Cronulla to watch junior representative games.

McKinnon would quit and seek a new challenge the very moment he felt he wasn't contributing towards a premiership for the Knights.

"Win or lose, sport is based on results, not your story,'' McKinnon says.

"At the Knights, our best story is still unwritten. That's what we're aiming for.''

Always looking forward, never back.

Originally published as The unlikely allies who delivered Knights saviour


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