“Shock.” “Bombshell.” “Crisis.”
Just some of the words used to describe the state of the A-League or its administrators after the announcement yesterday by the Hunter Sports Group (HSG) that they are handing back their license for the Newcastle Jets to FFA.
But is it really?
HSG’s chief executive, Troy Palmer (no relation to Clive), told SEN radio yesterday that Newcastle Jets had tried for 6-9 months to resolve a series of major issues with FFA. In a return serve, Ben Buckley said that he and Frank Lowy had tried to meet with Tinkler and Palmer in recent weeks but the most recently scheduled meeting was cancelled by HSG.
Perhaps that should have been the hint that things were not as they seemed.
It was already known that HSG was annoyed about the different acquisition and licence fees that appear to have been paid by club owners. Troy Palmer referred to this again yesterday when he asked at his media conference why the new Adelaide owners didn’t pay anything when the license for Adelaide United was acquired a month later. What’s the material difference between the Newcastle and Adelaide markets to justify such a significant difference?
It was widely talked about that HSG was not happy that its former Executive Chairman, Ken Edwards – also the former head honcho at ANZ Stadium – was allegedly paid a commission by FFA for brokering the HSG deal that was not disclosed. It was known that FFA CEO Ben Buckley had sought Troy Palmer’s agreement not to proceed with the legal case against FFA in respect of the Jason Culina insurance issue; but Newcastle Jets – along with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – are adamant that FFA is culpable and Culina needs to be recompensed.
And it was also known that HSG were amongst the advocates for greater autonomy and independence in A-League governance.
All of these matters were troubling HSG Chairman, Nathan Tinkler, and Troy Palmer when they cancelled the meeting with Frank Lowy and Ben Buckley, as it is why the meeting was scheduled in the first place.
So what happened next? Tinkler and Troy Palmer let the season finish, with the Newcastle Jets narrowly missing out on the A-League Finals, and HSG’s representatives duly attended a meeting between A-League club owners and CEOs and FFA on 29 March. Prior to the meeting with FFA, Troy Palmer had been successful in getting the clubs together but was rebuffed on his proposal to make the clubs’ caucus a permanent fixture.
At the meeting with FFA, owners and CEOs were presented another new financial model, which informed them that the combined losses of the clubs in 2011-12 would be around $27 million; and they could expect the same again in 2012-13, until the new broadcast rights deal comes into effect from 1 July 2013. They were also advised that the $250,000 each that clubs were expecting out of their share of the windfall on the sale of Brisbane Roar to the Indonesian Bakrie Group would not be paid because FFA required the $2.25 million to fund the legal case being brought against it by PFA and HSG.
At the same meeting, FFA also sought the views of clubs on establishing a 10th team to replace Gold Coast United in western Sydney. To a man – and yes, they are all men running football in Australia – their response was along the lines of: “Great idea FFA, but please don’t do it in a hurry as you haven’t exactly got a great record in expansion and this is too important to get it wrong.” This discussion was minuted by FFA and circulated to the clubs on 3 April.
The next day FFA heavies made the long trek across town from Darlinghurst to Parklea to join Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her western Sydney MPs to announce the injection of $8 million in funding for football in Sydney’s west. This included $3 million for facilities improvement at NSW Football’s headquarters, $1 million for women’s football and $4 million for junior and game development in the western Sydney region. Buckley also announced the establishment of an A-League team from western Sydney to enter the competition from next season – and to be funded by FFA.
In an e-mail copied to all clubs, Troy Palmer asked FFA why they hadn’t let clubs know of this development at the meeting held four days previously. This led to a series of e-mail exchanges between Palmer and the Head of A-League which other recipients said were, at best, “unedifying” and, at worst, “appalling” from both sides. The CEO of Adelaide United and former St Kilda and Melbourne star in the AFL, Glenn Elliott, tried to be peacemaker to no avail.
But ignoring the colour and drama, and focusing on the substance, Troy Palmer’s question is a fair one especially in light of FFA Chairman, Frank Lowy, declaring after the meeting that: “The spirit of cooperation in today’s meeting shows we have a true partnership between FFA and the clubs.”
However, from Troy Palmer and HSG’s perspective, the partnership was not “true” and it certainly was neither equal nor transparent.
He told a media conference in Newcastle yesterday that HSG had “lost confidence in the senior management of FFA”. He said that there were so many issues now between the parties that they “can’t or won’t be resolved” and HSG was forced to make a decision that they believe is in the best interests of football in the region.
This is not a dissimilar sentiment to Frank Lowy’s when he made his own ‘bombshell’ type departure from football in the 1987, pulling the plug on Sydney City one game into the new season.
“I couldn’t get ahead personally. I had a certain vision for the game and I couldn’t bring it about. The game was in disarray with the leadership. It was run by people who wanted to keep something for themselves and I wanted to make major changes.”
As Tinkler made clear in September 2010, owning a football club was never his priority but junior development and giving kids in the region something to aspire to was.
The HSG announcement yesterday delivered on this and sought to soften the blow of keeping Newcastle Jets’ fans and players stranded without an A-League club by investing $1 million annually in junior development in the region. But, while helpful for mums and dads, it is unlikely to appease Newcastle’s 10,000 members or give much comfort to the players, coaching and other staff employed by HSG.
Newcastle has a strong history in the national competition and in football – not least because of the many British miners who helped build the region in to what it is today. Along with many others, FFA saw Nathan Tinkler and HSG as saviours in 2010 and Buckley says they won’t let them go without a fight.
Based on the case presented by Troy Palmer, it seems it will take a seachange from FFA to ensure that Newcastle is not left unrepresented in the A-League.