Buyback time: Embattled Knights owner Nathan Tinkler faces a tough week.

Buyback time: Embattled Knights owner Nathan Tinkler faces a tough week. Photo: Rob Homer

As 13,682 spectators filed out of Hunter Stadium yesterday, many were perhaps wondering how things could possibly get worse for their beloved Newcastle Knights. They might not have to wait long for an answer.

After slipping to bottom rung on the NRL ladder with yesterday’s 32-10 hammering from Penrith, Newcastle’s next assignment is a daunting trip to Brookvale Oval, where they have not beaten arch rivals Manly since 2006 and have lost their past three games by a combined scoreline of 100-32.

Unfortunately for Knights fans, their concerns are not solely confined to performances on the field.

On Thursday, the club’s embattled owner, Nathan Tinkler, is scheduled to make his first appearance at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, where he is expected to face allegations that he attempted to bribe former minister for the Hunter Jodi McKay and made illegal donations to political slush funds.

If Tinkler did not already have enough on his plate, the Herald understands that on the same day he fronts ICAC, the Knights Members Club will be expecting to learn whether he will surrender control of Newcastle’s NRL franchise amicably, or if the ownership wrangle will become a full-blown legal battle.

After defaulting on March 31 on his commitment to have a $10.52 million bank guarantee in place, Tinkler entitled the members club to launch the process of buying the Knights back for $1.

As Fairfax Media reported on Saturday, the members club have served notice of that intention. It is understood they have given Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group until Thursday to respond.

If HSG were to ignore that deadline, or declare that it intends to challenge the legality of the buyback, the gloves will officially be off.

Whether the man labelled the ‘‘Boganaire’’ is willing to go down such an acrimonious path remains to be seen.

The members club believe the terms and conditions of Tinkler’s 2011 privatisation deal are ironclad, and for him to challenge them would ultimately prove futile, and potentially expensive.

Tinkler would also be risking a public backlash from the 97 per cent of members who endorsed his takeover three years ago, and the community in general.

And last but by no means least, HSG would be unlikely to receive much support or sympathy from the NRL.

Having commissioned a forensic audit of the Knights’ accounts last month, NRL officials are understood to be alarmed by liabilities rumoured to be in the vicinity of $20 million.

They would also be well aware that the members club have no intention of working in a joint venture with HSG – and neither do the affluent Wests Group, touted as the most likely option to bankroll and manage any new entity.

 After weeks of confidential negotiations between the NRL, HSG and the members club, the mere fact that the $1 buyback card has been played suggests there is no chance of a compromise.

While the NRL has played a neutral role as facilitator, that could change if Tinkler was to tell the members club he will see them in court, particularly if this was perceived to be a tactic to leverage a parting pay-out.

Nonetheless, despite the odds apparently stacked against him, informed sources believe Tinkler’s decision is shaping as a 50-50 bet.

Newcastle’s demoralising performance against Penrith yesterday is unlikely to have enhanced Tinkler’s public perception. It was a further reminder, if any was needed, of the disparity between his takeover sales pitch and reality. 

In the halcyon days after Tinkler signed master coach Wayne Bennett to a four-year contract in 2011, he joked that Bennett would win four premierships.

When he was haggling with the former Knights administration over buying the club, he told them the alternative to accepting his offer was to ‘‘get on with running 10th’’.

Right now the Novocastrian faithful would probably settle for 10th. It would be an improvement.

Instead their team have won two of nine games. Coincidentally the inaugural Knights of 1988 also won twice in the first nine rounds.

In those days, of course, the Newcastle Knights were the blue-collar battlers, owned by the community, win, lose or draw.

How times have changed.