I did not know what I was walking into when I arrived at Newcastle.

Like every other fan of our game, I have watched on as the Knights have taken home the wooden spoon for three consecutive seasons.

I don’t think anyone could be blamed for thinking confidence and spirit amongst the playing group would be at an all-time low, or if training standards were far from those reflected by a top eight side in the NRL.

I can reveal to everyone right now, that I could not have been more impressed with what I have seen since returning to the Hunter region.

These Knights boys really rip in and don’t take a backwards step from anything.

Every listed player has really bought into what coach Nathan Brown and his support staff are building – I have been blown away by how professional my new teammates are, and how committed they are to helping Newcastle reclaim its glory.

chris heighington exclusive insight

While the team only came away with five wins in 2017, the boys won widespread respect from fans and the wider competition for the way they competed from kick-off through to the final siren.

There is a reason why more than 20,000 fans packed into the club’s last game against Cronulla at McDonald Jones Stadium.

Although I was wearing a Shark uniform at the time, even I found myself staring throughout the arena, appreciating how passionate the Knights fans really are.

For the locals to stick by their team, through such adversity, says so much about the Knights faithful and I am hell bent on doing whatever I can to give them something to cheer about.

They deserve success, just as much as the players.

So it really has been wonderful to see such a young, dynamic team turn in a strong pre-season ahead of what promises to be exciting year of football for Newcastle.

These young lads train so hard, and I honestly think the change of clubs has been great for me.

Their enthusiasm and positive energy is infectious.

It has been refreshing, extending my career into a 16th season with new surroundings.

I did not realise how much I actually needed the change in scenery, but I do now. And returning to the Hunter region, where my love of rugby league first started as a budding junior, has been the icing on the cake.

It has been unreal to be back around family, and it is the perfect opportunity for me to complete the back-end of my career.

Chris Heighington exclusive insight 2

I remember cheering on Newcastle as a kid. In 1997, when they won the premiership, you couldn’t find a happier Knights fan than me.

I was a big fan of the Johns brothers, Matty & Joey – they were like heroes to me and the Knights were such a revered football club.

Unfortunately, these last four years have really tested the morale of Newcastle community, but I know myself how quickly the wheel can turn.

I was at Tigerland for 11 years, and then at Shark Park for five, winning premierships at both of my former homes.

However, I shared similar premiership success as both clubs.

In 2003, we didn’t even make the top 8 at the West Tigers, but in 2005 were holding up the trophy.

Most recently, in 2016, Cronulla won the NRL grand final – breaking a 50+ year premiership drought.

But many pundits forget, just two years prior, we were succumbed to the bottom of the ladder with the same amount of wins at the Knights from last season (five).

It really can change that quickly.

And that is why I am optimistic about this team’s future.

Here is a bold statement – and take this anyway you like. I would not be surprised if Newcastle win the NRL premiership sometime in the next five years.

The last couple of years the coaching staff have really laid the foundation by building from the ground up with emerging young talent – now you bring in experienced heads like myself, Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson, and Aidan Guerra and the balance is there to compete for higher stakes.

For myself personally, I feel as though I bring a sense of professionalism and knowledge of the game.

Having been part of two premiership-winning teams, I know what it takes to edge towards success, and my whole provocative is to help create an environment where these young lads can thrive in.

While I don’t talk too much in video sessions, I do speak up when it needs to be said as I tend to lead more by example through my actions.

While retirement is simply not in my sights. I am keen to get the best out of myself this year, as I know I am nearing the end of my time in rugby league.

I don’t want to be one of those guys to retire, and ponder as to whether I could have done better.

I want to be able to retire as clear-headed as possible, knowing I left absolutely everything out on that footy field.

Even at 35, I love the game more than I ever have.

I still enjoy training, and the day I stop loving what I am doing than I will walk away from rugby league.

But that isn’t how I feel – I love being able to train and that passion to play at the highest level still burns inside me.

A lot of former players have told me that I will know when it is time to retire – but I haven’t had that feeling and I can’t see myself slowing down anytime soon.

I feel as though I still have a lot to prove, and I am sure there are many other players on the team that feel the same – with Mitchell Pearce being one of those.

Mitchell Pearce NRL

I really believe this will be a big year for “Pearcey” – I don’t think he could have landed at a better situation.

He has been such a strong leader for this group, and has really helped raise the standards out on the training track.

I’ve always enjoyed watching his performances, and no doubt he has some critics he will be looking to prove a point too.

His footy smarts and IQ for the game is elite, and the environment he now finds himself in could be the catalyst he needs to really propel his career to even greater heights.

It has been awesome training alongside Mitch, and the rest of the lads this pre-season, and I’m looking forward to having footy back.