Anyone with a sporting soul can sympathise with Dave Walder. In his job as attack coach for Newcastle Falcons, the former England fly-half is working to lift the team out of the bottom two of the Aviva Premiership.
As a locally born, lifelong supporter of Newcastle United, the football club he follows is offering little relief. “I had a season ticket at St James’s Park for the best part of 20 years,” Walder recalls. “In the old days if I couldn’t get to a match you could sell the ticket. By the end of it, a couple of years ago, you couldn’t give it away.”
Yes, these are trying times on the Tyne. Walder played for the Falcons from 1999 to 2006, winning the national cup at Twickenham twice before spells at Wasps and a club in Japan. Since he returned to Kingston Park in the summer as one of the assistants to rugby director Dean Richards, the season has begun with four losses to extend a depressing run of Premiership defeats to 20. The last league win was over London Irish on 27 October last year. But under Walder’s influence, the try count is up: eight this season, compared with a measly one at the same stage in 2013.
“I’d say the fans are a bit more with us than the football team,” Walder says. “I didn’t go to see [the draw with] Hull because I didn’t want to hear 50,000 people shouting abuse at [the Newcastle United manager] Alan Pardew.”
The Toon Army dwarfs rugby’s crowds by about ten to one, but there is some shared interest. “Gonzo Tiesi [the Falcons’ Argentina centre] has friends in the football team and Fabricio Coloccini was at the Falcons’ last home game,” says Walder. “I always get the results immediately and, as a fan, I’m slightly irrational but I haven’t held up a ‘Sack Pardew’ sign. People forget how they hailed Mike Ashley as a saviour and were happy for him to buy them a beer. When things turn sour they say it’s all his fault.
“I’m also a coach and I know no professional goes out to give less than their best. A big reason people think players are not trying is because their body language shows they’re not enjoying what they’re doing.”
Walder is a bright character, keen to learn. He was coached as a junior footballer by Pardew’s voluble assistant John Carver and visited him last year for some tips. The rugby team are looking more expansive and not so fettered by fear but there have been gut-wrenching moments, like the six missed kicks in a two-point defeat by London Irish.
But Walder says: “There have been periods when we’ve switched off and you cannot afford that. All the players understand how big these next two weeks are for us.”
The rugby club spent big when Rob Andrew, Dean Ryan, Inga Tuigamala and a teenaged Jonny Wilkinson helped win the Premiership in 1998, when Walder was in the academy. Then Sir John Hall pulled his backing and stars began to leave.
“It is a huge shame but heads will always get turned,” said Walder. “A lot of it is financial.”
While Walder hopes there is room for loyalty, he has his own cautionary tale. “I stayed two years longer than I should. Then I got called in and in a few minutes I was sacked.”
Newcastle were relegated in 2012. Under owner Semore Kurdi, Richards oversaw promotion at the first attempt, but the only wins in the past 11 months have come in cups.
There is firepower in the backs, while two ex-Leicester forwards Calum Green and Rob Hawkins may be sorting out the set-piece under John Wells.
Walder said: “A couple of players questioned why we were doing certain things, and John Wells and myself replied: ‘Because what was done before wasn’t working’.”
Newcastle’s year of pain
* Lost 20 in a row in Premiership Last league win at home v London Irish, 27 Oct 2013
* Last league win away v Worcester, 5 Oct 2013
* Overall record in all competitions (Premiership, European Challenge Cup, LV Cup) since returning to Premiership as winners of second-division Championship at start of last season:
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