Gold Coast United has reached the point of no return, with owner Clive Palmer engaging in a public war of words with the governing body, Football Federation Australia, coach Miron Bleiberg quitting after his farcical suspension, and the exodus of players beginning.
In the week since my last column, written in the wake of their lowest home crowd of the season, the club has self-imploded with Palmer doing the detonating.
From the appointment of a 17-year-old debutant as captain, the suspension of arguably their strongest asset, Bleiberg, who has subsequently quit the club, to James Brown kick-starting the player exodus by signing with the Newcastle Jets.
With Palmer reportedly meeting with the players today to discuss the future of the club, there appears to be little he can say to stop them from running to Coolangatta Airport and getting out of the rabble that is Gold Coast United.
After all, following his comments over the weekend, why should anyone hang around?
“I don’t even like the game,” Palmer told The Sunday Mail. “I think it’s a hopeless game. Rugby league’s a much better game.
“The club is a very small, insignificant portion of what I do. We’ve got over $20 billion of projects.”
And there, in a few quotes, is what is fundamentally flawed with Gold Coast United. It is Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United, not Gold Coast’s Gold Coast United – and that’s always been the case.
Bleiberg has rightly resigned, telling the Courier-Mail “I’ll not be back”
“Clive can take my job but he took away my dignity – no one can take away my dignity.
“If Clive wanted to hurt me, he succeeded. If he didn’t mean to hurt me, he made a mistake.”
Ever since Palmer’s blustering entry into the league with brash comments of undefeated seasons, private jets and more, the club became an extension of his own ego and persona.
So why should the people of the Gold Coast care and commit to the club when their figurehead seemingly doesn’t?
It’s all downhill from here, surely – no coach, few players signed on beyond this season, what fans that remain surely questioning their loyalty to a club that is “insignificant” in the eyes of its owner, and with the governing body preparing to find any means necessary to kick them out of the competition.
Palmer’s licence agreement for Gold Coast United doesn’t expire till 2014, and despite his controversial comments, followed by the lukewarm response from the FFA, it appears the mining magnate isn’t ready to walk away without a fight.
“If we wanted to stay (in the A-League) and they (FFA) wanted to take it (the licence) off us, they’d all be in court, and Ben Buckley would run a thousand miles,” Palmer said.
“That’s the reality of it. They can say what they like … the A-League’s a joke. I don’t think I’ll ever talk to Ben again in my life, to be honest.”
If Palmer and Gold Coast United CEO Clive Mensink, Palmer’s partner in the mining world, decide they want to hang around, the FFA faces the challenging task of finding someway to either remove Palmer and Mensink from the club (but then who would want to takeover the damaged remains?) or remove the club from the competition.
The buck stops with Palmer and Mensink unless there is some legal recourse the FFA can call on.
Palmer seems to be holding out hope on moving the club out of its expensive Skilled Park renting agreement, which costs a reported $40,000 per match to the Queensland sate government (according to SBS’s The World Game), and into the council-owned Southport Tigers Rugby League Club ground.
According to The World Game, “Palmer is prepared to sink $250,000 into redeveloping the ground, which currently has just one stand – built at his own expense – into an A-League fit stadium with revamped change rooms and floodlights,” turning it into 5000-capacity stadium.
Not only does it help the bottom line, it’s a far more realistic size stadium for a club that at its last home game only filled six percent of Skilled Park (1723 in a 27,400-seat stadium).
But even if Palmer gets his way and Gold Coast United moves into Southport, his club’s brand is in tatters, with a series of own goals that has seen that club go from the 10,336 crowd that watched them defeat English Premier League side Fulham 2-1 at their birth to their current 3704 average or the 1723 that attended their last home game. Those who have stood by the club have every right to walk away after Palmer’s comments.
This current situation highlights the flaw in handing a license to Palmer: the club and, in many ways, the A-League’s future in Queensland’s second biggest region at the mercy of one man, who makes his fortune elsewhere and has little intimate knowledge or care of how the sport operates.
Now the FFA is paying the price for that mistake, with its expansion moves in tatters as Gold Coast follows the sorry path of North Queensland Fury.
With the Gold Coast Suns AFL club established and on the rise as they mature into the competition and marketplace, the Gold Coast Titans NRL club battling for their own renaissance, the Gold Coast Blaze NBL club a competitive summer opponent, and the possibility that Cricket Australia’s Big Bash League could expand into the Gold Coast, United appears to have little hope of surviving in a market that arguably can’t sustain all these clubs.
It was always questionable whether Gold Coast could sustain an A-League franchise. But once Palmer and co started on the path of tarnishing their own brand – no community engagement, setting incredibly unrealistic expectations, crowd caps, public war of words, internal bickering and more – they had no chance of rectifying given they were selling to a region as competitive and fickle as the Gold Coast.
Today the club is officially a basket case. They will claim the wooden spoon, as they were always destined to do when they failed to replace their departing big names at the end of last season with experience, relying far too heavily on youth. And the squabble over the future will only drive that promising youth to other more stable clubs.
To add insult to injury, Wednesday night’s rescheduled home match against league leaders, the Central Coast Mariners, looms as a further embarrassment; their record lowest crowd of 1658 surely in danger of being lowered.
If the FFA can convince Palmer to move on, then the priority switches to filling the void – keeping the A-League at 10 teams is vital at a time when the governing body is negotiating the next television rights deal, and western Sydney remains fertile land for the game.
This should be a motivator – two birds with the one stone. Easier said than done, yes, but essential for the league as it stands at the crossroads. There’s no alternative.
The damage is well and truly done on the Gold Coast. There is no going back.
In response to Palmer’s comments, Ben Buckley said, “I remind Clive that as a chairman and owner of a club, he has obligations to the competition, his fellow club chairman and investors in the other nine clubs, and to the game itself.”
Gold Coast had already let down the competition, the other nine clubs and the game itself before Palmer’s comments. The reality is it does so every time it plays at home and cameras beam pictures of empty grandstands across the country. As I wrote last week, that does untold damage to the A-League brand.
This, now, is beyond bad publicity. Gold Coast United and Palmer must go.