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EXCLUSIVE: Craig Foster talks fans, finances and ideas driving A-League's Southern Expansion

Craig Foster and the late Les Murray were the face of Southern Expansion at its launch. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Editor
6th March, 2017
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Yesterday’s news of a bid for a new professional football side to be based in South Sydney was greeted by a reaction far more heated than the usual coverage of a new A-League bid.

That, of course, was unsurprising. The bid is, after all, being fronted by two of Australia’s best-known football pundits – Les Murray and Craig Foster – and backed by Chinese property giant JiaYuan group.

But when talking to Foster about Southern’s expansion bid, what’s clear is this is very much a plan still in its infancy.

“I believe the group’s been talking since early December, so it’s been about three months now in development,” Foster says.

Foster himself has only been on board as the bid’s head of football for around a month.

But even in this early stage of the bid, it’s apparent there are genuine concerns around Southern’s potential fan-base. The bid is split across three different associations – Sutherland, St George and South Coast – and the region already provides a significant portion of Sydney FC’s membership.

Despite that, and the fact that Sydney already has two A-League teams, Foster is adamant there is room for another in the city’s south.

“No one can seriously argue that Sydney can or should only sustain two professional clubs. It’s just plainly ridiculous.

“Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that 10 to 15 percent of the membership base for Sydney FC comes from this region. That leaves a tremendously high number of participants and the general community who aren’t engaged.

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“I ask the opposite question; not what it’s going to do to Sydney FC, I ask how is it that the game cannot take advantage of this huge participant base?

“Those who have chosen Sydney FC will, we hope, stay with Sydney FC throughout their life. That’s the passion and identification that people have with a football club. And that’s fantastic. But this region needs further representation in the professional game. It’s going to bring everyone up and benefit every club, the league and the game in general.”

It’s a glass-half-full approach for sure, but one Foster sees mirrored in the inception of Western Sydney.

“When the Wanderers came in, it was the extra additional competition and people having to choose sides that actually saw Sydney FC memberships rise.

“If you remember, people were very concerned about it at that time, as ridiculous as that is, so this is very much the same.”

It’s not just Sydney FC that will be impacted by Southern.

If it hasn’t dashed their dreams completely, the bid has, at the very least, cast doubt over the Wollongong Wolves’ A-League aspirations. And with it comes concern the Illawarra community won’t fully support Southern as a result.

Again, the positive, glass-half-full approach is evident from Foster.

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“Some people see issues or challenges, I just see an opportunity for the game to maximise our potential in the professional game by a pathway for kids in clubs and in communities throughout this whole footprint.”

The Wolves have said they’re still eyeing off an A-League bid, but is it really viable for the Illawarra to play host to two professional sides?

“That’s a matter for the people who are going to be running the league at that time.”

With or without the Wolves in the picture, and even with the Sydney FC fans in the area, Southern has an approach to gaining a following that, in theory at least, stacks up well; a conversion of football’s grassroots participants into a community supporting the professional side.

While it’s a sound idea, particularly given the strength of grassroots football in south Sydney, pulling that off is a different matter entirely.

It’s been one of the A-League’s greatest head-scratchers; no club-based sport in Australia has as many participants as football, yet it languishes well behind the AFL, NRL and cricket in the national sporting spectrum.

“Everyone has always looked at the game and gone ‘Wow, we’ve got all of these people playing, how do you convert them into participants?'” Foster says.

“Well, the way to do it is to ensure that the club is designed with them in mind, for them, and there’s a pathway for all of the players in a particular region. So that’s why this club has actually started from the association base. Three associations with an MOU to say we’re on board and everything is going to be done together.

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“It’s a really powerful statement about what a future club model looks like.

“In the next 20 years, it is the professional game in this country that is going to deliver the promised land. That has to come through our participant base.”

This approach to the bid is evident the longer Foster talks. The professional side will be created with strong ties to the existing amateur clubs, there’s support for the NPL aspirations of region’s sides, and a desire to increase and improve the football infrastructure in the area to the extent of creating a purpose-built stadium in the region.

There’s as much a lack of a concrete, specific plan for that stadium as there is actual concrete being poured into the ground at the moment. But with a consortium from the bid headed to America in the near future to learn from MLS clubs, Foster is certainly making the right noises.

“What I’ve said to the ownership group from the lessons of the MLS is that the leasing costs for private or government-owned stadia are debilitative to many professional clubs across many different sports, but particularly to ours.

“Boutique high-atmosphere, purpose-built football stadia are a critical factor in any really successful competition.

“The evolution of the MLS has, in its second decade, demonstrated that in order to become a license-holder within the MLS now, a requirement is to have a commitment towards a purpose-built stadium.

“Why is that? It’s because of community integration, fan experience and the economic model of building financially strong clubs.

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“We’re still talking about sustainability and viability. We need to reorient the discussion to financial strength; how do we become incredibly strong? It’s through owning our own facilities.”

Where that community and financial approach overlaps is the JiaYuan Group.

As the sole backer of Southern, the property group has pledged a $12 million bank guarantee. And while they’re not a familiar name to Australian football fans – although they’re fast becoming one – Foster has no issues with the group.

“It was important that they demonstrated their long-term commitment both to us, as the football lover, when they approached us to be involved, and by giving a very large financial guarantee to the FFA and they’ve certainly done that.

“As one of China’s largest property development groups, they have a foundation in China and they’re certainly talking about one here. And quite a number of facilities and sporting venues have been built in China as part of their community contribution. So they’re constantly talking about contributing to the Australian community.”

What’s clear is Southern is an obvious frontrunner for one of the next two professional licenses. Couple the financial clout of JiaYuan, the promise of a new stadium and a commitment to engaging the grassroots in a new club, package it all behind the well-known faces of Murray and Foster, and it’s nigh on impossible to imagine the FFA saying “no.”

Despite that, the aforementioned issues remain. Will the bid simply splinter and fragment existing football fans in the region? Will Wollongong’s football community dismiss Southern for its Sydney roots?

Say what you will about Foster – and plenty has been said – you can’t deny the man’s passion for football, nor his desire to see the sport thrive in Australia. Now with a major role in the creation of this new team, he has the chance to prove that his footballing ideals are as viable on the field and in the community as they are on TV.

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