The knives were out for Newcastle Eagles after a trophyless 2011 – but how they hit back. MARK DOUGLAS reports
THE problem with being at the top is there is a long way to fall.
As a bruised Newcastle Eagles found out in the summer of 2011, there are always a plethora of people ready to kick you on the way down for good measure.
Club owner Paul Blake said: “We heard it all the summer after we didn’t win a trophy.
“There was a feeling our cycle was over and people were questioning Fab (Flournoy) and his method.
“There was a real resolve about Fab and Dave Forrester in the summer.
“I don’t think they said much publicly, but they wanted to get the club back to the top again as soon as possible.”
Stunning retribution was doled out on January 15, a date Blake singles out as one of the most important in the club’s history.
There was a triple whammy for the Eagles in winning the BBL Cup in Birmingham.
It was only the second Cup triumph of the Flournoy era, it ended the barren silverware run and it also marked the rehabilitation of Charles Smith.
Not that ‘Prince’ Charles needed to prove anything in Eagles’ eyes, having already masterminded the capture of two pieces of silverware virtually single-handedly.
However, deep within the Philadelphia forward there were questions which needed to be answered about his own hunger and desire after a close season spent pondering retirement.
Blake added: “Charles sat in my office and it was 80-90% certain he was going to retire.
“That was his own figure, but I was pretty convinced he wouldn’t be coming back.
“I think he’d had a long season – as the team had – and he was pretty beaten up about the way it had gone. Mersey Tigers had beaten us and I think all of the guys took it badly because they just kept pipping us, which you would expect because of the team they put together.”
It was a roster the north west team couldn’t afford.
After one particularly tough Cup defeat that term, the Eagles took a phone call offering them the Tigers’ star man Andrew Thomson – who the Mersey club were struggling to pay due to ongoing financial issues.
Still, the Eagles had been beaten and Smith looked set to quit.
Newcastle had recruited expecting him to take up a teaching or coaching job back home, but he had a sudden summer change-of-heart and decided to take one last tilt at the BBL.
It was for days like January 15, at a sold-out National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, he opted to return.
The talk in the build-up was about the Eagles’ Cup curse, this being the only piece of silverware they had only won once.
However, the underlying message was Plymouth, an upwardly mobile club enjoying a renaissance, could be the new Tigers.
Flournoy said: “Charles said to me ‘If you get me to the final I’ll do the rest.”
In the first half, Smith played like a man possessed.
He had 25 points on the board and was putting up all kinds of shots – fades, lay-aways and draining three pointers from all angles.
He only missed one and in effect the contest was over by the time the teams reached the locker rooms.
Credit to Plymouth for plugging away, but the Eagles’ return to winning ways was confirmed with a stunning 107-90 defeat of a very good Raiders side.
Smith, with 39 points, was the clear MVP as he delivered confirmation he was far from a spent force.
Suddenly, the agenda for the season changed. With the weight of silverware off their backs, the Eagles surged in that second half of the season and completed a remarkable clean sweep. Their BBL Trophy win over Plymouth, achieved after overturning a significant first-leg deficit, was just as dramatic but in terms of a cathartic moment: it came in the Second City. Blake said: “In terms of greatest seasons, there are two which stand out, 2005-06 and 2011-12 but, and as strange as this sounds, this one was done with an Eagles budget.
“In 2005-06 we had the Commonwealth Games which allowed us to invest in internationals who went to the Games.
“That is not meant as disrespect to those guys or Andrew Sullivan, who we couldn’t have afforded if it wasn’t for that help. It was just this time it was all our own.” If 2011 was the Eagles’ annus horribilis, 2012 was an annus mirabilis. The club has arguably played basketball more pleasing on the eye, but never had they played with such resolve or determination.
“The questioning of the club in the summer had cut deep, but they responded brilliantly.
As the year draws to a close there is a recognition they will need to do so again. The league is growing and expanding – too slowly for some, but the addition of big-city franchises is a major step in the right direction – and new rivals are popping up all the time.
This season will be closer than last and there are no guarantee.
However, a core of last year’s team has tasted success and the experience of pulling through on afternoons like January 15 will be invaluable in the months ahead.