NEWCASTLE Eagles will launch their first assault on Europe next season as the club looks to build on its domestic dominance on the continent.
The Eagles are expected to wrap up their second league title in three years this weekend – starting with tonight’s game at Everton Tigers – and go some way to relieving the acute disappointment they felt at losing in the finals of both the BBL Trophy and Cup earlier this season.
Remarkably, if they succeed it will be the club’s eighth trophy since managing director Paul Blake took over the franchise eight years ago and it will almost certainly not be the last. Having established themselves as the dominant force in British basketball, Blake and player coach Fab Flournoy know that bigger challenges lie ahead if they are going to turn their vision of the future into a reality.
Although the BBL, of which Blake is chairman, has made enormous strides in recent years to increase basketball’s popularity and participation, it is still a third world power compared to the domestic leagues in other European countries. The Eagles, though, would like to be the first club to bridge the gulf.
Blake said: ‘It will be a great achievement if we can win the league this weekend. We need to win two of our remaining four games to be certain, but if we beat Guildford on Sunday, who are the only team who can catch us, we only need to win that one.’
‘It will be the second time in three years we’ve won the league and that’s a remarkable achievement in any sport. Look at Manchester United in football, it’s one of the toughest things to replicate success.
They don’t win everything every season and neither will we but, like them, we want to make sure we are in with a shout of winning things every year.’
‘We can’t win every final we reach, as we have found out this season. That hurt like hell, but at least we were there to try and win them.’
Nevertheless, for Blake, there is a sense of satisfaction at how far the Eagles have come, as well as the realisation that much still needs to be done. ‘We just want to be in and around winning things and that is what we’re doing. The first season I took over we finished second bottom and we only did that because we won the last game of the season.’
‘That was eight years ago and now we’re seen as one of the dominant forces in British basketball. There is a sense of satisfaction about that because we have made massive progress, both on the court and in the structure of the club.
‘Europe is still high on our agenda. That’s what we need to do to take the club to the next level. We’ve got to win the league first to get the chance to represent Britain, but our aim is to be competitive in Europe when we do get there.’
‘Realistically, though, in our first year, we will have to go into the third tier competition, the Fiba Euro Cup. We aren’t strong enough to go into the other competitions yet because the British League is so far behind the rest of Europe.’
Although Blake is largely responsible for the Eagles’ masterplan, he believes he would have struggled to put any of it into practice without Fabulous Flournoy. The New Yorker has proven to be an inspired choice as coach and it is his demanding nature on the court which has put the club on the silverware trail.
Blake explained: ‘It has been a slow and, we hope, sustainable build. A massive amount of that is down to Fab, not just with what he has done on the court, but in the effort he puts in supporting the community structure we have built up over the last few years.’
‘You will get coaches who are supportive of what you are trying to do as a club, and you get coaches who just want to look after the players and aren’t really worried about the bigger picture of where the club is going. Fab has really bought into what we want to achieve. Europe is still high on our agenda. That’s what we need to do to take the club to the next level.’