The tom-toms are out for FFA CEO Ben Buckley – fuelled last Sunday by sport columnist Phil Rothfield writing that (former NRL CEO) “David Gallop will be joined in the unemployment queue by another high profile sporting administrator in the not too distant future.” The hot tip is he was referring to Buckley.
Rothfield, a close ally of Gallop during his time in charge of NRL, followed that up today with a piece today that confirms Gallop has been sounded out by Chairman Frank Lowy. While Gallop didn’t go on the record, he didn’t take the opportunity presented to shut down the speculation either.
It’s not the first time there has been public speculation about Buckley’s tenure.
Even when FFA was in the midst of bidding for the 2010 World Cup, Lowy was aware of disquiet amongst the broad church of football stakeholders with Buckley’s performance in the job, not helped by a lack of cut-through at the international football level. A list of possible successors given to Lowy in September 2010 included American David Downs, Englishman Andy Anson, PFA CEO Brendan Schwab, then Head of A-League Archie Fraser and, perhaps the one man who should be enticed back into the game ahead of anyone else – but for the FFA Board not as CEO – Mike Fraser, who is Managing Director of AGL and a former goalkeeper with ex-NSL powerhouse team, St George Budapest. At the time, Downs and Anson were still overseeing the US bid for 2022 and England bid for 2018 respectively; Archie Fraser was not popular with Lowy; and Schwab was not popular with FFA or the A-League clubs.
In December 2010, after FFA was humiliated with only one vote after $50 million of taxpayers’ expenditure at the 2022 vote, it was widely believed that Buckley would go; but, annoyed by public comments made by former national coach Les Scheinflug and former Socceroos Zeljko Kalac and Craig Foster about the management of Australia’s bid, Lowy showed both disdain for elite football opinion and loyalty to Buckley in equal measure by reappointing his hand-picked CEO on the spot at the only post-bid media conference.
In early 2011, conscious that the football ‘brand’ was not doing well, Buckley was given some performance measures he had to meet which included a successful ‘refreshment’ of the A-League season that kicked-off in October 2011, improved financial performance, greater engagement with fans and the community, improved crowds at the A-League, more prominence in the media and “fixing” the aborted western Sydney team, all as key inputs to a new television deal. The football elite accepted that Buckley was not only being given another chance to get the A-League right – his fifth full season at the helm – but he was also widely regarded as an expert negotiator and, with the new broadcast rights still looming, he still had an important job to do.
All was going relatively well on the surface until Gold Coast United imploded towards the end of the last A-League season followed by the Hunter Sports Group decision to withdraw from the A-League, for reasons revealed by SBI. That decision was only overturned after Lowy was forced to intervene directly with Tinkler because of what was an unworkable relationship between HSG and Buckley. Lowy was compelled to intervene not because Buckley and FFA recommended he do so, but because some straight talking external advisors told him the game was at a tipping point and if he didn’t, his own considerable legacy to the game could be reduced.
There are some who believe Lowy and Buckley agreed a ‘separation timetable’ months ago. They point to the fact that, although always reluctant to appear publicly, Buckley has been quieter than usual in the past few months and has “the demeanour of someone who’s given up”.
One A-League CEO recently described an email Buckley sent at 4pm on a Friday before he went on holiday as written in terms of a man “who no longer gives a stuff what we think.” The email advised CEOs they needed to cut their cloth and appeared to cast doubt over whether A-League clubs would receive full coverage of the 2012-13 salary cap of $2.5 million as has been long promised. This has led to the more recent ructions reported by Tom Smithies in the Daily Telegraph last week in which a previously avowed loyal fan of Buckley, Adelaide United Chairman Greg Griffin, is quoted as saying “I am not wasting my time with this mob.”
The consequent series of emails between Buckley/FFA and A-League CEOs are said “not to reflect well on anyone” according to one of those copied on all the correspondence. Another A-League CEO says clubs are “enormously frustrated by the lack of communication” while another club’s Chairman puts it more bluntly that “FFA has no communication skills. Period.”
A-League clubs are unhappy that the sponsorship provided by the Federal Government under the responsible drinking strategy (of $250,000 each) has been absorbed into the amount to be received as salary cap relief rather than being an ‘added extra’ on top of the anticipated $2.5 million. As it stands, clubs are guaranteed of receiving up to $1.9 million from the FFA without the new broadcast deal.
Further adding fuel to the Rothfield smoke are reports from both the Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald in the past month that have openly linked Gallop to Lowy and the FFA role. Gallop holidayed in the French Riviera prior to the Olympic Games, where Lowy’s super yacht regularly spends time; and, as Acting Chairman of the Australian Sports Commission, Gallop has been ubiquitous at Australian Olympic Games functions in London hosted either by Lowy’s Westfield, other AOC sponsors or by the Federal Government.
Financially, the FFA job would be a step up from the $750,ooo a year Gallop was paid by the NRL. Buckley is said to be paid $1 million.