On the same day that Football Federation Australia announced that Nathan Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group (HSG) would honour its contract to run the Newcastle Jets, saving the former champions, the governing body heralded a new dawn of collaboration with A-League clubs.
Finally, some good news from the previously beleaguered league.
With a collective sigh of relief, the football community is claiming that the A-League is back on course after rolling on from one catastrophe to another ever since Clive Palmer, Gold Coast United owner, spectacularly set of a cosmic chain of events that threatened the league’s very existence.
It’s a remarkable turn of events considering just three weeks ago Tinkler and the FFA seemed destined for the courts, with the former’s HSG citing a fundamental breakdown in their relationship with the FFA as the reason why it handed back the Jets’ licence, following Palmer’s path on the outer of the game.
So why the backflip?
The official line is that FFA chief Frank Lowy and Tinkler met over the weekend and sorted out their differences; the billionaires moving on and agreeing to work together despite the animosity of the last month. But was it really that simple?
Did Tinkler, realising he didn’t have a leg to stand on in the courts considering he had signed a 10-year deal to run the Jets, bite the bullet and accept the FFA’s invitation to come back into the fold?
Was this whole dummy spit merely a negotiating ploy for Tinkler to get some concessions or a waiving of the contentious extra fee he paid for the Jets’ licence relative to other owners?
Perhaps the backlash in Newcastle hit Tinkler hard; the community whom he sought to provide a strong, united, cross-sport brand rallying against him rather than the FFA, prompting the residents of Newcastle to question whether he could be trusted with their other sporting treasure, the Newcastle Knights rugby league club.
“When I first made this commitment I did it on behalf of the community and I am committed to further developing football and sport in a community I grew up in and am proud of,” said Tinkler.
Whether that community can trust him after he toyed with them and threatened the existence of their beloved club remains to be seen. He must earn their trust back, which won’t be any easy task given his drastic actions of the last month.
So all is right with the A-League, they say.
Newcastle is back in the fold, guaranteeing the required 10-team competition next season; advertising entrepreneur John Singleton shapes as the Central Coast Mariners’ saviour if the mysterious Russian investors never surface; Perth Glory and Adelaide United owners have come out guaranteeing their commitment amidst speculation over their futures; the Western Sydney heartland will have a community-driven club up and running; and league problem child, Gold Coast United, and its troublesome owner have been banished.
Even if Palmer maintain his war against the FFA via his Football Australia rebel body, he’s crucially without what appeared to be his key ally in Tinkler, who has sided back with the FFA. And with his campaign to take on the federal government and his brazen plan to build a Titanic Mark II (of all things), one wonders if Palmer will still have the time (motivation) to persist with his campaign against the FFA.
With the new Joint A-League Strategic Committee (JALSC) up and running, having met for the first time in Sydney yesterday, clubs are getting a taste of the transparency and say they have demanded.
According to the FFA, the committee meeting marked “a new era of collaboration between clubs and the governing body”.
In owners Tony Sage (Perth Glory), Peter Sidwell (Melbourne Heart) and Greg Griffin (Adelaide United), who will represent the clubs on the JALSC, there is a good cross-section of representation for the rest of the owners.
But the key test of the JALSC will be whether it becomes merely a forum for the club owners to air their grievances, or if it can be a committee where decisions and reforms are formulated for the FFA to then push through.
Having had multiple cases of rogue owners rebelling against their authority and, somehow, coming out the other end with a league still intact, the biggest mistake the FFA can make is to pat itself on the back for winning back Tinkler and saving the Jets and simply move on. Genuine reform is still needed, and the league remains at the mercy of other disenfranchised rogue owners.
With the cash-strapped governing body rushing in and bankrolling a new Western Sydney for next season, it could not afford to run a Newcastle, Central Coast or other owner-less club.
Yet as Adelaide United proved a fortnight ago when, in a desperate bid to help fund their Asian Champions League campaign, they negotiated with “the enemy” in Palmer’s Football Australia for sponsorship, clubs are bleeding financially; even those with committed owners, on- and off-field success and a strong community presence.
The FFA dodged a pretty massive bullet over the Jets. But it remains in bed with an owner that has once before walked away from his club and others who could yet do so. And unless there is genuine reform as a result of open discourse with the club owners, there will be more Tinkler-style behaviour with owners threatening to walk away if they don’t get their way.
That’s no way from a league to exist and hope to engage with fans that become the innocent victims in the power struggle.
The FFA has by fluke or design crafted a 10-team competition that finally has its much sought after two teams in Melbourne and Sydney respectively and has rid itself of the flawed Queensland expansion franchises.
Now is the time to build on that foundation in a new era of transparency with the club owners. The FFA flirted with disaster with the Palmer saga. Fail to learn the lessons from the rogue owner revolt and it might not be so lucky next time.