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The Age

Ready, set, go: FFA's time is now

Date: 12/05/2012
Words: 828
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Sport
Page: 21
The governing body must learn from the mistakes and failures of the past and focus on rebuilding the brand.

TO LOSE one billionaire (Clive Palmer) might be regarded as accidental. Surely it can happen to anyone, even another billionaire like Frank Lowy.

But to lose a second (Nathan Tinkler)? Now that might well smack of carelessness.

So to say Football Federation Australia was relieved and delighted earlier this month when it managed to woo Tinkler back into the fold after he handed in his licence to run the Newcastle Jets might be an understatement.

No one would have been more relieved than Lowy, the plutocrat at the helm of FFA, who flew to Brisbane in his private jet to meet with Tinkler in his private hangar  such are the baubles of the super rich  to kiss and make up.

With Newcastle back on board and the West Sydney project up and running, a measure of stability has returned, at least for the time being, to the A-League, and Lowy is getting the plaudits for engineering a recovery.

The noisy, self-aggrandising distraction that is former Gold Coast United owner Clive Palmer can be ignored for a while. Even though some have argued that in his conspiratorial, ranting way the Queensland miner did the game a service in saying the unsayable, thinking the unthinkable and questioning perhaps the most sacred cow in Australian sport, Lowy, there is no doubt that he had become a damaging force in the game.

Had the Jets crashed and burned and left Newcastle without a club and the A-League with only nine teams (including the hastily-assembled West Sydney), the man who has won so much kudos for the role he has played in reinvigorating the game would surely have found himself tarnished and lacking the authority that he has enjoyed for so long.

Indeed, he might have begun to look  especially to those all-important politicians in Canberra who hand out the multimillion-dollar cheques for everything from World Cup bids to grassroots infrastructure development  rather accident prone.

And when you are in charge of a body that has spent much of the past two years careering from crisis to crisis  disastrous World Cup bids, failed expansion programs, unseemly legal battles with uber-rich club owners and team closures  the last thing you need is to be regarded as accident prone. Especially when you are gearing up for a set of broadcast and media negotiations that will determine whether the game in its current shape can grow and develop.

So score one to Lowy and FFA for getting some stability into the situation and convincing Tinkler to stake some skin in the game on a long-term basis.

But let's be honest about this. It's not as if getting Tinkler back on track is a resounding victory.

It's more like FFA has come from a 0-2 deficit (having lost Tinkler and Palmer) to equalise late in the game. It feels like a win, but it's really a reversion to the status quo.

Still, the way things have been going, the status quo is not a bad place from which to regroup and rebuild.

Clearly FFA needs to ensure West Sydney is a success right from the outset. That doesn't mean it has to win the championship in its debut season or even make the finals. Gold Coast almost won the championship in its debut campaign and look what happened there. No, West Sydney has to be competitive and give its fans a reason to believe, which is why all the talk of community engagement is encouraging, with the fans having a major say in the establishment of the club.

As much as anything, FFA needs to take a deep breath and listen: to the game's supporters, to its investors, to those with a knowledge of its history and its culture.

Too often it looks as if the same handful of executives and board members are on every committee, every working party, every decision-making group. Yes, the game's leaders have to be across all the key issues, but there is a danger of never hearing any other opinions if you talk to only yourself or like-minded colleagues.

The establishment of a working group involving the FFA and the club owners to oversee the A-League is an encouraging step in the right direction.

The game under Lowy has made fantastic strides and is unrecognisable from the sport that was the subject of the Crawford review nearly a decade ago. Teams are now fully professional and play in terrific stadiums. Players earn competitive wages and there is unprecedented TV coverage by Fox Sports and increased space in the mainstream media. For that Lowy should take a bow.

But in what surely must be the final term of his leadership, he now has to consolidate what has been developed if he wants to leave the legacy he assuredly set out to create when he agreed to be the frontman for the revamped game.

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