It was always going to come to this. Football Federation Australia (FFA) yesterday revoked Gold United’s A-League licence in an attempt to bring to an end Clive Palmer’s one-man tirade against the governing body and put the sorry club out of its misery.
What a fortnight it’s been for a club that has been plagued with flaws from very early in its existence, most self-inflicted by its owners.
The events of yesterday leaves us with so many questions…
Was the decision to revoke Gold Coast United’s licence justified?
Yes, but not the timing. According to Frank Lowy, Ben Buckley and the FFA, enough was enough. Palmer and Gold Coast United made “a conscious and deliberate contravention of FFA Policies and Procedures” with their “Freedom of Speech” logos in their last home match, supposedly in the name of refugees and not directed to the governing body given the public war of words of the last fortnight.
Then there was “deliberate defiance of a direction that was given by FFA; and repeated public statements made by or on behalf of Gold Coast United that bring the A-League, FFA and the game of football into disrepute and are prejudicial to the interests of FFA, the A-League and the game of football in Australia.”
The FFA wouldn’t have taken the decision to revoke without the confidence of knowing it was justified within the terms of the agreement between them and Palmer, knowing the latter would take it the courts with no expense sparred.
But why now, with four rounds left in the season, jeopardising the competition as a whole? Yes, Palmer could have continued his public tirades in full public view, causing some embarrassment to the game.
As Lowy said, “We can’t let anybody thumb their noses at us saying, ‘I’m going to do what we want to do but I want to stay’.
“We cannot leave ourselves totally open to what Gold Coast wants to do. We were hoping there would be some reconciliation. I tried to talk and I couldn’t. We can’t be in this limbo. We’ve got to bring this saga to an end.”
But ultimately Palmer was only embarrassing himself and his own club, further ostracising himself with his actions and nonsensical justifications, giving the FFA more grounds to kick him out at season’s end.
Would a fine, sanction or points ban not have worked in the short-term before termination at the end of their campaign? The timing, on the day of a Socceroos World Cup qualifier and with the rest of the home and away season yet to be completed, seems a confusing one, highlighting how much damage has been done.
What happens for the rest of the A-League season?
While the FFA is hoping Gold Coast United will field a team and compete in their remaining four matches, it seems doubtful Palmer, in this mood, will play ball, even if the FFA is willing to pay the players, which is illegal under the regulations of the game, according to Professional Footballer’s Association CEO Brendan Schwab.
Given the current climate of antagonism, it’s unlikely we’ll see Gold Coast United play again. It would take a mighty diplomatic effort to put them on the park for those remaining games, and if Palmer doesn’t cooperate, then it becomes and immensely complex logistical game to save those fixtures. After all, the FFA cannot field a team itself, borrowing Gold Coast United’s players who have been left unfairly in no-mans land.
If those remaining matches are scrapped, then the only option the FFA has is to expunge Gold Coast’s matches this season from the record. Otherwise the competition is jeopardised when the four clubs still to play Gold Coast, who are all in the finals race (Wellington, Newcastle, Perth and Brisbane), could be given an unfair advantage against a rag-tag team assembled by the governing body. It would severely undermine the integrity of the competition.
If Gold Coast’s matches are erased from the record, there will obviously be consternation amongst teams disadvantaged at such a critical juncture of the season. If other clubs kick up a stink, then the FFA will have to cop it. This is a potential minefield involving all clubs, which is the FFA’s doing.
Where does the A-League go after this season?
As Frank Lowy stressed during the press conference, retaining a 10-team competition is crucial for next season, particularly when the next television deal is being negotiated as that one less game per round makes a big difference.
But if Gold Coast United is out, who can come in? While there is all this talk of a Western Sydney club being a “prime objective” for the league, with Lowy saying he is “absolutely determined” to bring the region into the fold, there appears to be no investor willing to back such a club… still.
The Australian reported during the week that businessman Paul Lederer recently told the FFA he wasn’t interested given the current business model he would have to enter into.
Following on from the stillborn Sydney Rovers and other parties who were allegedly interested in the possibility of backing a team but never came through with the goods, finding necessary backing and creating a club from scratch this late in the day seems a stretch. Even if it is willing to bankroll a Western Sydney club itself, the FFA will still need to find the necessary investors down the track. Can it be trusted to get this one right and create a club/structure attractive enough for an investor(s)?
In the rush to get back to 10 teams, the FFA can’t make the same mistakes it made in its previous expansion moves, namely on the Gold Coast and in North Queensland – relying too heavily on the capital of a potential owner without the necessary due diligence on that individual or the market it is entering.
Canberra, Tasmania and Wollongong all have cases for A-League inclusion, but can the current model sustain a club in markets smaller than the Gold Coast?
Considering the time constraints and the obvious hurdles to create a startup club, is it time for the A-League to do what was once considered unthinkable and look to the state leagues to step up to the national competition?
If it already has the foundations of a solid club with a fanbase in a strong market, surely it makes more sense in this current climate than the cost and risk associated with a brand new club.
If Western Sydney is the place to be, why can’t a Marconi take its place in the A-League?
Can Gold Coast United be revived?
Given the insistence that a 10-team A-League is necessary, there is always the prospect that the inability to find a suitable replacement could lead the FFA to takeover Gold Coast United, as they have done elsewhere, and search for new owners.
That would be a last resort. But any new owner will inherit a club heavily scarred by Palmer’s ownership, with a tiny fanbase in a congested and fickle market, and with the same stadium dilemma that beset Palmer (heavy rent of Skilled Park, or the costly option to setup shop elsewhere).
Given the current market, the displeasure of other owners and the questioning of the current A-League model, the chances of finding another backer appear slim. As the FFA has found in its chase for backers in Western Sydney, there are few out there willing to bankroll a football club at an almost guaranteed loss.
The reality is this failed expansion move has, more than likely, taken Gold Coast completely out of the equation for the A-League. Any future attempts to revive United under different ownership or starting a new club will do so in the shadow of this failure, at a time when the Gold Coast Suns AFL club recently hit the 10,000 member mark (Gold Coast United has fewer than 400 members) and is increasingly crowding out an already crowded market.
Does this open the way for Clive Palmer’s breakaway league?
In the wake of the FFA’s press conference, Palmer told The World Game, “I have the resources to go out and form a 10-team competition of my own and perhaps that’s what I will do. If Mr. Lowy wants to take on my wealth against his, let’s bring it on.”
The clubs may have justified grievances with the FFA, certainly given the amount they are losing and the FFA’s stubbornness to reform and give them a greater say in the running of the game.
But if they honestly think Palmer is the man to lead a breakaway, given the events of recent weeks, they are deluding themselves. Palmer has made a right mess of Gold Coast United. He has constantly contradicted himself on his interest in the game and the future of his club – his calls for “freedom of speech” while sacking a coach for daring to question his appointment of a 17-year-old debutant as captain the height of hypocrisy.
Squash the breakaway notion without consideration, club owners. Palmer isn’t the white knight some are portraying him as. The game cannot afford a third chance and undo the solid groundwork that is the A-League. Hopefully it is just an empty threat that is ignored.
What does this do to the A-League and FFA brand?
Untold damage, particularly off the back of the demise of the North Queensland Fury and the failed World Cup bid. The second expansion club folding in as many years, with the airing of all the dirty laundry that goes with it, means the undoubted progress made by the league this season has been all but forgotten. Today, when we should be talking about a famous win for the Socceroos, we are instead analysing the demise of a football club.
Yet again mainstream Australia is left to question whether the game can govern itself and overcome the clear divisions that exist and date back to the changeover from Soccer Australia to Football Federation Australia, the National Soccer League to the A-League.
This debacle comes at a time when the next television deal, seen as crucial to the financial state of the league going forward, is being negotiated and the A-League season approaches its finals, overshadowing the on-field product – a repeat of the goings on last season with the Fury.
With Palmer threatening legal action and calling for the government to look into the FFA’s funding and books, not to mention Newcastle Jets’ recent comments regarding their dealings with the FFA, this will just get worse.
Who is to blame for Gold Coast United’s failings?
Three groups: Clive Palmer and his mining/Gold Coast United allies, the FFA and the apologists. All three are culpable and not lose sight of that in the mud slinging.
Palmer and co made untold mistakes with the club from day one, setting unrealistic expectations and alienating their supporter base. He cannot deflect the blame wholly onto the FFA.
Looking from the outside, it almost seems like he has orchestrated this course of events to get to this point; forcing the FFA to kick the club out of the competition to either put the onus on the governing body or get something back through litigation – something he seems to enjoy (68-0 in the courts, as he will happily tell you).
But the FFA made the mistake of getting into business with a man who had no background in football and made his fortune in a field as far removed from the sporting arena as you can get. Had they not had countless warnings before this recent saga to see that something was awry on the Gold Coast? Why did they allow it to escalate to this point?
And this is where the third party, the apologists, come into the equation. When Gold Coast failed to replace Shane Smeltz, Jason Culina, Bruce Djite, Zenon Caravella and more with adequate signings, relying on youth players to fill the squad, offering only one-year contracts, yet another sign the club was headed nowhere, where was the questioning?
How many in the game – media, personnel and more – buried their head in the sand assuming everything would be okay? Why was Palmer given the benefit of the doubt after the crowd caps and more, allowing him to continue to lead the club into extinction?
Gold Coast United was always destined to finish last this season while fielding a youth team with a light sprinkle of experience, and it was on a slippery slope from early in its existence. Could we not see that?
But back to the FFA, this is the second expansion club to be kicked out of the competition in as many years – FFA’s expansion plans an unmitigated failure.
Once you throw in Australia’s $45 million-plus World Cup bid, launched and run and a time when the A-League was far from secure yet expanding, and the inability to get a Western Sydney club up and running in the game’s supposed heartland, then serious questions have to be asked on the governance of the game and whether it deserves the generous government funding it receives.
Yet where is the accountability? And why haven’t heads rolled?