The A-League is in turmoil and a legal battle looms after Football Federation Australia rejected a shock announcement by billionaire Nathan Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group to walk away from the Newcastle Jets.
In a fresh blow to the troubled competition, HSG announced on Tuesday morning it was handing back its Jets A-League licence effective immediately, citing irreconcilable differences with FFA.
The announcement, which blind-sided FFA and came just hours before the A-League’s annual awards ceremony, seriously threatens the governing body’s hopes of a 10-team competition next season and potentially its bargaining power for a new broadcast deal.
It comes only days after FFA announced it would bankroll a new western Sydney franchise from next season and wielded the axe on Gold Coast United, having earlier stripped the club’s billionaire owner Clive Palmer of his licence.
Despite claims from HSG of an “untenable relationship” with the game’s administrators, FFA is standing firm, with chief executive Ben Buckley saying Tinkler’s group has no legal grounds to hand back the licence it holds until June, 2020.
Buckley fronted a media conference on Tuesday afternoon but refused to speculate on the possibility FFA would have to seize control of the club or find new investors, saying it remained HSG’s responsibility.
“We have very sound legal advice,” Buckley said.
“They signed a contract … and they should live up to it.
“This afternoon we will write to HSG reinforce that we expect them to live up to the commitments they’ve made.
“We will give them an appropriate period of time to reconsider their decision and asses their options from there.
“… I would hope common sense prevails.
“Do we want to have a team in Newcastle? Absolutely. It’s a vibrant footballing community and I don’t think fans should be treated like this.”
The Jets’ administration dropped the bombshell at a press conference on Tuesday morning, saying they had been unable to resolve several issues with FFA.
Among the main concerns were what they considered an unfair cost of acquiring the licence – reportedly $5 million – the ongoing insurance saga around injured marquee player Jason Culina and the competition’s “unsustainable financial model.”
But Buckley refuted those suggestions and another that FFA had been hard to communicate with over the issues.
Buckey also labelled the timing of the announcement “appalling”, likening it to when the Jets sacked coach Branko Culina on the day of the season launch.
HSG appear unlikely to back down though, based on its strongly-worded announcement.
Tinkler’s group stepped in to rescue the club almost 18 months ago after former owner Con Constantine relinquished his licence due to financial troubles.
Chief executive Troy Palmer said it was a tough decision but a necessary one.
“Unfortunately, having lost confidence in the FFA management and its ability to find a resolution, it is clear we have no other option,” Palmer said in a statement.
“It is about removing ourselves from an administration in which we have an untenable relationship.”
The statement made no mention of whether the club would meet Jets staff and players’ current entitlements, but said its ownership of NRL club the Newcastle Knights would not be affected.
Professional Footballers Australia said it would hold urgent talks with HSG to ensure all player contracts were honoured.
The announcement was met with shock from Jets players.
Striker Michael Bridges posted on Twitter: “WOW. Did not see that coming. Devastated for everyone involved at the Jets”, while Jeremy Brockie added: “Feel gutted for the fans and supporters of the club!!”
Buckley admitted the latest crisis was not a good look for the game but blamed it on the actions of billionaire owners Tinkler and Palmer.
“Football has come an enormous way in the last seven or eight years and we shouldn’t be letting the actions or behaviours of individuals reflect on the wonderful progress that has been made,” he said.