As far as timing goes, this was impeccable. Nathan Tinkler waited until precisely the right moment to drop the latest bombshell on a besieged Football Federation Australia.
This drama was meant to be over last week, when Gold Coast were cut for Western Sydney.
The problem club was kicked out, the golden goose was in. Done and dusted, let’s have a few drinks at the Johnny Warren Medal count and then start planning ahead, right? Wrong.
Tinkler caught the FFA with their pants down when he pulled his funding of the Newcastle Jets.
While the news felt like a bolt out of the blue, the reality is it has been on the cards for some time. Rumours continue to circulate that Perth Glory’s Tony Sage will be the next chairman to push the red button.
Nobody except for those right in the thick of the drama are privy to the full details of what has happened, but it appears that Tinkler was genuinely outfoxed in the case of the mysterious license fee.
The cash-strapped federation squeezed as much money as they could out of him back in 2010, and he obliged. Obviously, having done his homework (we can only assume), he thought $5 million was fair enough. It was profiteering from FFA and they got away with it.
Tinkler went ahead and took a club that was struggling under its former owner, Con Constantine, and turned them into one of the success stories of this A-League season. Happy days, until Clive Palmer flapped his gums and told him that he’d been ripped off.
That – combined with the Jason Culina affair, the frustrations of an unsustainable business model and a variety of other issues – was the straw that broke the coal-mining camel’s back.
The FFA should have known it was playing with fire – that if a guy like Tinkler ever found out that he paid far more for his club than any of the other A-League owners, then it was going to be on like Donkey Kong.
And so it is. To say that this is just a Nathan Tinkler problem – that he’s another hot-headed mining baron in the mould of Palmer, who never really had the best interests of the game at heart and threw his toys out of the pram when things didn’t go his way – is to overlook the issue.
FFA have made some incredible strides forward this year. All the important metrics – crowds, ratings, memberships, even the standard of play – are up.
Ben Buckley deserves credit for that, as does Frank Lowy, who has done wonderful things for the game in his time as chairman. Nobody should ever forget that, especially given where football used to be.
But all the goodwill they’ve built up has gone. Their credibility in the eyes of the average punter has taken a massive hit.
Buckley claims that the Hunter Sports Group hasn’t a leg to stand on, and that they must continue to pour money into the Jets until 2020 as per their contract.
Whether or not he is right, does the FFA really want another unwilling investor? Isn’t the whole ‘Freedom of Speech’ saga still fresh in the mind?
Tinkler, and the other owners, demand change. Despite the formation of a steering committee that will represent their interests and give them a ‘say’ in the running of the game – according to the federation – they want a seat in the FFA boardroom, and that does not look like happening on the current regime’s watch.
Who can deny them this when it costs them a sum total of $27 million every year to keep the competition afloat? The A-League can’t work without them, so their grievances must be heard.
They join a growing list of football figures to accuse the FFA of a lack of transparency, and pure weight of numbers suggests that they can’t all be angry axe-grinders.
The most shameful part of all of this is that just days after Gold Coast United were abandoned, it looks like more innocent parties are about to have their lives turned upside down.
Players, staff and supporters – the triumvirate that is the essence of the game – have become the unwitting pawns in a billionaires’ game of brinkmanship.
Nobody involved in this can escape blame, but worse still, nobody can say for sure where football will go from here.