LAWRIE McKINNA: Passion for Club and Community
Lawrie McKinna always knew he wanted to make his living in football. He remembers being a five-year-old in Scotland, laying out his goals for the sport he loved. Credit: All Video & Photography courtesy Skeye High Photography
“When I was five everybody played football. I started primary school, and I can remember standing out the back of my Gran’s house… and I said to my mum I was going to be a professional footballer, and I was going to play with the Glasgow Rangers, and I was going to earn 100 pounds a week, and I was going to give my mum 95 pound a week board money, and I was going to buy her a Hillman Avenger! That was my dream to be a football player.”
While the aspirations of a five-year-old seldom play out as planned, 50 years after making his bold prediction McKinna is still earning his living from football as the CEO of the Newcastle Jets.
He may have never pulled on the kit of his beloved Rangers FC, but McKinna still lived his dream of being a professional football player for 15 years in both Scotland and Australia before moving on to become a successful coach, and later, football club CEO.
To this day, McKinna remains thankful he has been able to spend his life doing something he loves and remains as passionate as he was as a five-year-old about the world’s most popular team sport.
“Signing my professional contract (with Kilmarnock in the Scottish Football League) was like a dream come true,” he said.
“I went and had a trial with them, played two games, scored six goals and got signed as a 19-year-old young father. I lived my dream.
“My first game was against Rangers reserves, which I played at Ibrox Stadium, there were just two or three thousand people in this massive big stadium, but I never cared. I played on a field that I’d never been on before because I’d just been in the terraces watching. That’s the stuff you read about in your books."
“I never got to play with the Rangers but I was getting paid to do something I loved, and I’ve always looked at it like that, I’ve been so fortunate to earn some money to do something I’d be doing anyway.”
Of course passion and a part-time professional contract alone were not enough to pay the bills and after four years of juggling his football commitments with a job as a van driver for a local factory, McKinna and his growing family (including wife Christine and sons Scott and Stuart) made the momentous decision to move halfway around the world to Australia.
“There was (sic) just no jobs in Scotland, and I was just fed up,” McKinna said.
“I looked to going to Hong Kong or South Africa to play, and then there was the opportunity to come to a State League club in Victoria, Box Hill, and they flew myself, my wife and two boys out there.
“We came to Australia, it was the biggest decision in my life, and then we arrived in Melbourne, it was pissing down rain and sleet, and we went ‘What have we done here?’ You just think it’s beautiful here, you don’t realise you actually get rain here, you think kangaroos are walking up the street when you’re in Scotland," Lawrie jokes.
“I was there for about three months and did quite well, and I got sold to a National Soccer League team, Heidelberg, the big Greek club in Melbourne and I played with them for a year and did well.
“Then I got sold to APIA Leichhardt in Sydney and came to Sydney and then got sold to Blacktown City in the National League as well. That’s when we really settled down, we bought a house out in Windsor, and that’s when we knew we weren’t going to go back (to Scotland).”
McKinna’s NSL career also included a short stint in Newcastle, where he played seven matches for the Breakers in the 1993-1994 season.
But it wasn’t until he hung up his boots as a player and joined Parramatta Power as the assistant coach to former Socceroo David Mitchell in 1999 that McKinna finally scored his first full-time gig in football.
Three years later he became head coach of North Sydney based club Northern Spirit – a move that also saw him pick up his first ever football award after being named Coach of the Year.
When the A-League was introduced as the successor to the now defunct NSL in 2005, McKinna took the reins of the Central Coast Mariners, one of the eight foundation clubs participating in the new national competition. McKinna led the team to victory in the Pre-season Challenge Cup before taking them all the way to the grand final, where they went down 1-0 to Sydney FC. He was named the A-League’s inaugural Coach of the Year for his efforts.
McKinna remained in charge of the Mariners for five seasons before becoming their Football and Commercial Operations Manager and was instrumental in growing the club’s popularity and presence on the Central Coast, becoming renowned for his focus on community engagement.
Despite never securing the winner’s trophy during his time as coach (they finished the 2007-2008 season on top before going down in the decider 1-0 to Newcastle), McKinna said he was proud of what he was able to achieve at the club.
“The Mariners, we achieved a lot for a little team,” he reflects. “To actually see the unification in a town and a city because of a football team was special, all those thousands of people that were at those games and even when we lost the first grand final, you’ve got 600 people waiting for you when you come back … it was something special.”
In 2011 McKinna moved to China to take up the head coaching position at Chinese Super League club Chengdu Blades. He remains the only Australian to have coached in that competition.
A stint with China League One side Chongqing Lifan followed before McKinna returned to Australia in 2012 to venture into an entirely different field altogether – politics.
Approached by millionaire advertising mogul John Singleton to run for local government, McKinna secured the biggest independent vote in Gosford City Council’s history to be elected as a councillor in 2012, before winning the internal vote a week later to assume the role of mayor.
With the top job voted on by councillors every year, McKinna set yet another record during his time on Gosford Council by becoming the first person to retain the position for their full four-year term.
“As a personal achievement, becoming the mayor was huge,” McKinna said.
“I’m reasonably confident I can speak to 500 people, I can get on the stage with professors and academics to talk about council stuff, and I can do better than them because I talk real, they talk in the big fancy words and I just say how it is.
“But when I became mayor I thought ‘I left school just before I was 16, got pregnant, got married… (and now I’m) the mayor of a city, that’s quite a big gig. So that was really quite special.”
But while it was a whole new world for McKinna, very little about his approach to the job at hand changed. With his honest, hardworking nature, commitment to engaging with the community and habit of telling it like it was finding him as many fans in the mayor’s office as it had on the football field.
“I was called 'unique' by a lot of people who would come in and have a meeting in my mayor’s office, which was a posh office, and they would come out and go ‘Well that was unique, that was different’ because it was just real,” he said.
“You could just talk, there was no bullshit, there was no airs and graces. I’d make them a cup of tea, I had my kettle and tea there, nobody was waiting on us, it was just low maintenance and just real.
“I just did it because that’s how I am. People used to say ‘You’re doing a great job’ but I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just being myself and doing what I think’s right by people and treating people with respect.”
Staying true to himself in the bureaucratic world of politics often meant McKinna said things and dealt with issues in a rather politically incorrect way. But it also lent a genuine quality to whatever he did – such as conducting council citizenship ceremonies.
Citing his own ceremony to become Australian when he was still coaching the Mariners as one of the “biggest days” of his life, McKinna took to his role of officiating over them with relish once he became mayor.
“You talk about being proud of something,” he said. “Me and Christine, I think it was 2008, last game of the season against Adelaide United at the stadium, we became Aussies the week before Australia Day in front of 10,000 in the middle of the stadium.
“It was a real special day… one of the biggest days in my life. And my best gig as mayor was doing the citizenship ceremonies, I loved that. I cried at some of them, people cried because of how you made it because it’s very formal but I put my spin on it, and it was lovely.
“We’d get so many letters of thanks about the way we put it on, it was nice. I just loved seeing people like me becoming an Aussie and what it meant to them.
“We did a few friends, and when one of our friends was getting done I got done up in the kilt and the (mayoral) chains, nobody knew this, but when I walked out, everyone went ‘wow.' “Then we got one of my other mates who does the pipes, he marched in doing Waltzing Matilda on the pipes and it was such a nice thing.
“Then during the ceremony, I had my phone in my sporran, you know my wee bag (worn at the front of a kilt). Because that hangs out in front of your personal bits and it was vibrating, I burst out laughing.
“Everybody’s just looking, and I said ‘If you’re wondering why I’m laughing, my phone’s ringing in my sporran’ and I pulled my phone out and I said ‘If it’s anybody here can you phone me again because that was nice!’ … that kind of lightheartedness, people respected that.”
McKinna certainly earned plenty of respect in football circles over the years as well and this, combined with his friendly nature and his passion for the game, unknowingly played a part in the Newcastle Jets being purchased by the Ledman Group last year.
While coaching in China, McKinna befriended an English speaking player’s agent, Rocky Liu, who was set on moving to Australia. They kept in contact when McKinna returned to Gosford and around a year ago, the then mayor was approached by Liu, who said he knew of a Chinese businessman interested in buying an A-League club.
“A month later Martin Lee came out for the first time so I facilitated meetings with him and the FFA and … he came back out in the March/April. That’s when he was serious about getting the club, and that’s when he asked me to be the CEO,” McKinna said.
“It was a chain of events of things that if I’d never went to China, it would have never happened… so you just never know, that’s why you always have to keep your options open.”
What Lawrie does know now though is what he wants to achieve with the Jets.
“Now I just want to focus on my next big thing, which is the Newcastle Jets,” he said.
"I’m not saying we’re going to win the league, but challenging again and putting respect back in the town for their football team - if I can achieve that in the next two or three years I’d be happy as a pig in shit.
"It means that much to me now. I’m lock, stock and barrel… this is where my passion is, I want Newcastle Jets to be successful."
“One thing is for Martin Lee, for investing money and believing in my story. What sold him to buy the club is my passion for Newcastle. People don’t know that, they just think it was because he’s a rich man and he was going to buy the club.
“It was a hard sell to him, but he told me after that the reason he bought this club was because of my passion that the Newcastle Jets could be successful again.
“When somebody comes out and tells you that afterwards you think ‘That’s pretty strong’ - when a guy is investing his millions … because he believes in my passion for the club.
“And it would just be good to see that vibrancy about the city again, that people are proud to walk about with the Jets shirt on or the cap on and that’s what you want.
“A lot of people, if you ask them, they’ll say they’re a Jets fan, but they don’t go to the games. We need to try and get them get to be proud to come to the games again.”
For more stories on McKinna’s life, why not check out his biography written by Central Coast author Adrian Deans – Political Football: Lawrie McKinna’s Dangerous Truth – which was released last August. Described Fox Sports’ Andy Harper as “very readable, but not for the PC at heart!” It’s a hilarious read and available in all good bookstores or online. ISBN 9780646958385 (Published: August 1st, 2016 by High Horse Books).