BY CURTIS WOODWARD
Long ago in a distant land, the early 2000’s to be exact, your writer spent many a Sunday afternoon at Penrith Park. A mate of mine couldn’t bring himself to support the new Wests Tigers merger so he switched allegiances and bought himself a Panthers jersey.
A downside to this was he expected me to catch the train with him from Campbelltown to go and see them play.
To this day, we still reminisce of the ‘red seat utopia’ – red seats as far as the eye can see. There were cult heroes too that only a Panthers fan could love. Names like Sid Domic, Jody Gall and Lee Hopkins.
And these were the days when if you hung around post-match long enough, you could play on the ground, run around in the dressing rooms, did as you pleased. One day we stalked the 2GB commentary box until 6pm.
Tony Megahey came out and actually had a chat to us – he was great: “Campbelltown? What are you doing here? Don’t you have school tomorrow? Who do you go for? Wests Tigers?”.
If Wests Tigers weren’t in town, why wouldn’t I go and watch the Panthers?
We were there for the shit years and were part of the resurgence too. To the point where we got there late one day for a Panthers versus Warriors clash and could barely see the game from the back of the northern hill.
Then the Panthers fizzled out again. They haven’t won a premiership since those great old days in high school.
For several years – the Panthers were just kind of hanging around. They’ve never reached their full potential.
But a sign of a club’s power is the resentment they receive from rival supporters. Sydney Roosters, Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm – Penrith haven’t ever been spoken about in the same breath. Until now. The signs are there. The red seat utopia is dead.
General manager Phil Gould cops plenty and it comes with the territory but he has helped the club see what it can truly achieve.
The ingredients have always been there.
No club has a nursery to sustain them like the Panthers junior system, they boast a $22 million state-of-the-art football academy which is the envy of the rugby league world, a geographical advantage no other Sydney club can match (other than perhaps Wests Tigers), six leagues clubs across the state and a ruthless general manager unafraid to make brutally tough decisions.
Gould – one of the greatest coaches the game has produced – walked in and changed everything. He showed Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings the door. They’ll always be club legends but they needed a change. The Panthers needed new furniture just as much as the players needed a holiday. He later did the same to captain Matt Moylan in a trade for James Maloney.
Most recently, the club brought back Ivan Cleary to coach the NRL team. It came after the club originally sacked him because he looked “tired”. They replaced him with Anthony Griffin, sacked him and re-signed Cleary. All under the nose of Wests Tigers. Question marks have been raised as to how Penrith went about it all but they eventually got their man. The big clubs always do.
Most importantly, the Panthers are winning games of football.
Since 2014, they have made the finals on four occasions including a preliminary final appearance.
The Panthers are on a mission to be a long-term powerhouse and people are starting to notice.
And that isn’t such a bad thing.