Mick Watson is a member of a vulnerable gang of four. That's the number of chief executives at the 15 NRL clubs still there from when Watson arrived at the Warriors four years ago.

It's a revolving-door kind of job. The buck stops at the top. Or does it?

During the Warriors' ride to the grand final in 2002, the shaven-headed Aussie's back must have ached from the congratulatory slaps. Nowadays it's more likely to be from the slings and arrows.

Currently seventh on the table, the club is struggling to emerge from its dark age of 2004, when they limped in second-last, jettisoned out-of-sorts star player Ali Lauitiiti and lost award-winning coach Daniel Anderson in the process.

And now fans are digesting news of the imminent departure of Stacey Jones - who has been the club's most recognised and applauded player - to play in France at the end of the season.

That news was dropped at a press conference at which questions were unwelcome.

Hardly surprisingly, some see scapegoats in such departures and suspect the fingerprints of Watson.

He is once again the hands-on Warriors manager, involved in all facets from contract negotiations, weekly team selection, to media.

In an extensive interview with the Weekend Herald, Watson admits manipulating the media, regrets his high-society profile, and says he was wrong to make other projects a priority during 18 months in which the Warriors fell into a hole.

And he reveals that far from being pushed, Anderson opted out.

Watson's critics suggest he's a charming yet controlling autocrat.

Watson, 39, admits to arrogance, to ego, but does so speaking in the past tense. He's back, he claims, to being the blue-collar Parramatta boy he's always really been.

Failure has grounded him, he says. Through his business career he'd known only success, getting promoted regularly at Coca-Cola and Pepsi. He was Kellogg Australia's general manager when brought to the Warriors by entrepreneur Eric Watson in late 2000.

There, he helped erase six years of dashed hopes, the Warriors making the play-offs in the first year under the Watsons and the grand final the next.

He was bullish, confident and he talked in capitals, stating in his strategic plan that the New Zealand public was ripe to embrace the Warriors, that the club's jersey might rival the All Black jersey as a symbol of national pride.

"If you'd asked Mick Watson two years ago, 'Who is Mick Watson?' I would have been riding the peak of the roller-coaster and without even realising it, maybe a little bit arrogant, maybe a little too much swagger."

"I'd like to think I'm a bigger man because [back then] I hadn't learned the error of my ways. Have I made mistakes? Course I have. The Cullen Sports strategy of growth, which I sold to the board, well, we thought we were ready."

He took his eye off the ball.

With Temuera Morrison, he wrote the format for a weekly television show hosted by the actor to screen on Prime and went into the boxing business.

And there was the attempt to bring a Pacifica rugby team into the Super 12.

Meanwhile, the Warriors were on the skids. Sixth the year after their grand final appearance, they fell into a black hole last year.

"I didn't realise that I had as much impact and was that influential at the club. I thought it was self-sufficient. Good coach, good principles, good methodology, good roster. I expected we would be in the finals without the aid of Mick Watson."

Disappointed fans saw the departure of loved players and the coach, yet the chief executive stayed, the man who in the good times attributed the club's on-field success to getting the "front office right".

Did he survive because of friendship with the owner?

Watson says no. It's clear he likes and respects Eric Watson but says sentiment had nothing to do with it. He wasn't specifically told his job was on the line but the boss and the board told him it's broke, "Okay, go fix it."

He survived, most likely, because the finances were sound. Despite the horror year, the Warriors' sponsors signed up again.

The problem was on the field. They looked at the player roster.

Vinnie Anderson and Lauitiiti went, and fans waved signs other than those exhorting the Warriors to victory. One which was in Watson's office this week read: "Bring back Ali, sack Watson".

And that might have happened, says Watson, had he not been able to sign respected players such as Canterbury Bulldogs skipper Steve Price and Kiwi captain Ruben Wiki, from the Canberra Raiders.

That doesn't mean such players will always be indispensable. Record points-scorer Ivan Cleary and the uncompromising Kevin Campion left after being offered reduced contracts. Both are now back in coaching roles.

"It's my job to look into the crystal ball and try and forecast when players are going to be past their use-by date. Most times I've got it right. Three of the four seasons we made the finals."

It's natural for players to want to hang on as long as they can. Watson says that, in hindsight, Cleary agreed it was his time but Campion believes he had more to give.

As much as fans want to hang on to their heroes, life is about change.

But, he says, the exit of Anderson as coach was Anderson's decision alone.

"Let's put one big rumour to bed. Daniel Anderson was not sacked, was not pushed. It got to a stage where Daniel Anderson came and asked to be negotiated out of the business."

Watson, who was responsible for bringing Anderson to the club, says he tried to talk him out of leaving.

Anderson was 2002 Dally M coach of the year and is the current Kiwis coach. It's not like his talent had evaporated.

To listen to Watson, it's as though Anderson had run out of ideas to turn the tide and was concerned for his longer-term prospects in the game. A brilliant technical coach, Anderson wasn't one to cuddle the players and it was a time everyone was hurting.

Watson says it cost him his friendship with Anderson but says there was no row.

"We never raised our voices. In the end ... he made a decision he thought would be best for his career. If we continued losing, his coaching record was at risk."

There were critics aplenty last year, many baying for blood.

The grand final appearance raised expectations but also changed the club in a way not anticipated.

Watson: "The guys weren't walking in wearing their sulus, their lavalavas any more. It was all bling bling, as they say. Out in the carpark there were BMWs, there were endorsement cars with their names on the side. They were wearing cool clothes with diamonds in their ears."

In hindsight, he says, he's surprised they did as well as sixth in 2003.

Watson, known for his snappy dress and an A-list social profile, says he's changed too - "back to being me. I'm not putting the black tie on any more".

The flak has taught him what really matters is at his St Mary's Bay home: his partner of 12 years, Aucklander Melissa who is pregnant with their fourth child.

That doesn't mean his ambitions are gone. He's driven, he says, to bring glory to the Warriors.

What he has now is an appreciation that the title of NRL champion is a cherry not easily plucked.

He's circumspect, these days, about projections. The strategy failed last year, but he says, "We are a finals club, we expect to be there."

If they make the playoffs this time it will be four from five since the Watsons took charge. Miss out and he fully expects there to be plenty of critics - fans and media. He used the media for "propaganda" purposes, he says, in the first three years, when there was no marketing budget.

Something that came back to bite him - "and nobody missed".

"It's not 2001 any more and I'm not your breath of fresh air."

The Stats

1995: 10th of 20
1996: 11th of 20
1997: 7th of 10 (Super League)
1998: 15th of 20
1999: 11th of 17
2000: 13th of 14
2001: 8th of (playoffs first time)
2002: Minor premiers, beaten grand finalist
2003: 6th of 15
2004: 14th of 15

The Rollercoaster

* March 1995: Warriors lose debut match to Brisbane Broncos 22-25
* February 1997: Ian Robson, the CEO whose free-spending saw Matthew Ridge and Marc Ellis paid more than $500,000 each, is sacked.
* March 1997: Warriors leave NRL to join upstart Super League.
* October 1998: Tainui, former Kiwi coach Graham Lowe and businessman Malcolm Boyle buy the club. Tainui later ousts Lowe and Boyle.
* September 2000: Warriors go broke.
* October 2000: Eric Watson's Cullen Investments buys the club.
* 2001: With Australian mates Mick Watson as CEO and Daniel Anderson as coach, Warriors embark on three-year plan to become title contenders.
* 2002: Stacey Jones signed "for life". Win minor premiership, beaten grand finalists. Anderson named Dally M coach of year.
* 2003: Anderson appointed Kiwis coach and Warriors win first two playoff matches before bowing out to eventual winners Penrith.
* 2004: Ali Lauitiiti, the Dally M second-rower of 2002, shown the door, Anderson quits.
* April 2005: Jones' departure to a French team announced.