Newcastle Jets are poised for a remarkable turnaround in fortunes while CEO Lawrie McKinna, in his words, “keeps it real” at a club slowly returning as a force in Australian football.
The fact this is happening under Chinese ownership the Ledman Group speaks volumes for the club’s ability to reinvent itself off the pitch.
On the park, and if they maintain their position on the ladder the Jets will be back in the Asian Champions League (ACL) in 2019.
From bottom last season to second-placed on the ladder and ACL contender, that’s some reinvention for their A-League side.
“He [Jets owner Martin Lee of the Ledman Group] lost a bit of face last year when we finished bottom. I felt for him because I was the guy who talked him into buying the Jets. I felt I’d let him down," McKinna concedes when sitting down with www.a-league.com.au ahead of tonight's clash with third-placed Melbourne City at AAMI Park.
“The prestige for him of qualifying for the Asian Champions League would be huge, and huge for us after we finished with the wooden spoon last season."
Much of the credit for this turnaround goes to Ernie Merrick’s astute management of their A-League side.
Together with Football Operations Manager Joel Griffiths’ ambitious dealings in the player market - deals which have yielded the likes of “Pato” Rodriguez, Venezuela international Ronald Vargas and fringe Caltex Socceroo Riley McGree - the Jets have assembled their strongest ever squad.
When their entire squad is fit and available for selection, it’s a first XI to match that of Sydney FC’s.
Work off the pitch includes a refashioned academy structure giving youngsters from the region a clear pathway into the first team.
Women’s football continues to explode in player numbers in the Hunter and interest, evidenced by last year’s Westfield Matildas visit to Newcastle pulling almost 17,000 fans to McDonald Jones for a friendly with Brazil.
What's more, the Jets’ W-League side sit third with a good chance of making the upcoming finals, lead by Matildas star and Newcastle’s homegrown star Emily Van Egmond.
“The things we started doing last year we’ve just continued. You can’t turn the Titanic around in a short time. It takes time.
“We’ve turned the team around but there’s still a lot of work to do,” adds McKinna.
McKinna is not averse to jumping on social media and hamming it up if it means promoting football and the Jets. It’s all part of a strategy to keep the club in touch with the fans.
He takes the job of CEO seriously – with the club’s owners investing heavily in the club since taking over at the start of last season - but McKinna keeps it real when it comes to the fans.
McKinna was an early adopter of social media, famously tweeting from the Mariners dressing room at half-time of a league match.
He is still an avid user of social media and isn’t above himself to get back to fans on Facebook. McKinna also drove the Jets on social to get behind a campaign to end cyber bullying.
It resulted in the fans applauding in the 14th minute of their clash with Brisbane as a mark of respect for a 14-year-old schoolgirl who committed suicide after being bullied online.
“And that’s how we communicated the message. It was through social media during the game. And at the game, we made an announcement.
“And the Newcastle community was outstanding. It was very moving for what was very, very sad circumstances,” says McKinna.
“Social media’s changed things greatly. And we use it well to communicate to the fans. I think it’s an important part of what we do.
“I was the first A-League coach on Twitter. It was against Melbourne Victory,” he says, with just a hint of pride.
“But I got smashed. Nil-all at half time and we got beat 3-0.
“Our media department here at the Jets [media manager Matt Townsend] does a great job on Facebook getting back to fans, I get back to them. Especially if the fans are wrong.
“If somebody’s having a go at you, and they’re right, you have to admit they’re right. Because we’re not right all the time.
“But there are other times when you have to give them the facts, so they understand where the club’s coming from. And I think we’ve done a good job on that.
“People say, 'what are you doing?' And I say, 'we’re just being real'.
"It’s nothing new, we’re just being respectful and being real.”
Now, into his second year with the Jets, Scottish-born McKinna believes this community focus is the right strategy for the culture in the Hunter.
Jets attendances are on the rise – averaging just over 12,000 for their last three home games.
“When you look at the context of the league, we’re doing well. And we can do better," he says of the crowds.
From tough-as-teak footballer in Scotland and Australia, to successful Hyundai A-League coach at the Mariners and now Jets CEO – with a four-year spell as Gosford Mayor in between - you can’t say McKinna has had a dull CV.
And if there’s one thing he believes is key, it’s relating to fans on the terraces.
“One of my dreams to do at the Mariners was to be up 4-0 with five minutes to go, run off the coaching bench and run around and join the Yellow Army.
“I always wanted to do that. But I never had the pace to do it in time!
“Then when I became Mayor, I’d break things down by asking, ‘I’m a ratepayer. What would the punter think?’
“And now as a CEO, I’m a fan. Some of the little things I do and I’d like to do they’re maybe too controversial, but the little silly things I get involved with, fans relate to it.
“You can’t be some big-time Charlie. It doesn’t matter who you’re speaking to, people deserve your time.”