Southern Expansion's rejection a 'political' decision: Chris Gardiner

Out: Southern Expansion CEO Chris Gardiner with the club's chairman Morris Iemma. Picture: Peter Braig
Out: Southern Expansion CEO Chris Gardiner with the club's chairman Morris Iemma. Picture: Peter Braig

Southern Expansion CEO Chris Gardiner believes Football Federation Australia made a “political” decision to protect the value of Sydney FC’s licence in rejecting Southern from A-League expansion.

The FFA officially endorsed Western Melbourne Group and Southern’s Sydney rivals Macarthur-South West Sydney on Thursday for inclusion in the A-League from 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Southern had planned to represent the St George district, Sutherland Shire and Illawarra and were committed to not only bringing regular A-League football to the regions but also wanted a W-League team.

Southern were well backed financially and planned to build their own stadium and training facility at Lucas Heights, playing games at Kogarah’s Jubilee Oval, Woolooware’s Shark Park and Wollongong’s WIN Stadium in the interim. 

FFA CEO David Gallop said at a press conference on Thursday the impact on existing clubs had been taken “very firmly into account” in reference to Southern Expansion.

Sydney FC had led fierce public opposition to Southern, famously saying Southern would “cannibalise” the Sky Blues’ fan base in the south.

But a deeply disappointed Gardiner told the Leader that argument was incorrect, claiming Southern had excelled on every one of FFA’s own metrics. 

“[St George and Sutherland] now belong to Sydney FC. Forever,” he said.

“I personally don’t see how there will ever be a team in that area now. I could see them having four teams in Sydney. [But] now they’ve accepted South-West to appease Sydney FC I don’t think there will ever be a licence in that area.

“[Sydney FC’s] cannibalisation argument was not supported by data. They have 15,000 members and say a third or 5,000 come from the southern region. There are 40,000 registered players down here. They clearly didn’t have the hearts and minds of over 30,000 potential club members.

“But more importantly, from the FFA’s own data our club was one of the least impactful on existing clubs. The cannibalisation argument simply doesn’t stand up to the test. That was used as a cover story. It was not supported by facts.

“We were disappointed and surprised the FFA didn’t stick with their own metrics. It’s clearly been about protecting Sydney FC’s value.”

Gardiner said Sydney FC had gone as far as to produce a dossier on Southern’s potential negative impact, which was handed to the FFA.

When Southern approached the FFA for a copy, Gardiner says they were told to approach Sydney FC, which they declined to do.

Gardiner confirmed Southern would not attempt to gain a licence in any future expansion process, saying their $30million-plus investment in the game was now lost.

FFA contacted Southern to inform them of their unsuccessful bid officially on Thursday morning. The governing body offered to have a meeting to discuss the reasons for Southern’s rejection but Gardiner said a meeting was unlikely.

“The process is judged by the outcome. When you give all the bidders a data room with a whole set of data and metrics and then they build around it and in the end the decision isn’t made on that data, you’ve got to be disappointed with the process,” Gardiner said.

“Unfortunately what they did say on our submission, we asked was there any other data to pay attention to and FFA said no. So the data that they said to rely on we came first in everything. We know we provided more money and we know the key piece of data quoted around cannibalisation doesn’t hold up. So in the end it comes down to protecting Sydney FC.

“You also see the FFA’s press release. They said West Melbourne was going to build a stadium, so did we. Then they said these teams would play on good, rectangular football pitches, we have three of them, all much better quality. And the last one was that Macarthur-[South-West Sydney] had a fantastic grass roots fan base with 50 clubs, we’ve got 120. We matched or bettered them on every reason.

“Clearly it has been about Sydney FC. The first season that they’ve finally committed to games [at Kogarah] after more than a decade just happens to be when they needed to stop someone setting up a club down here.

“We said we were going to set up academy programs in each association in our area that kids didn’t have to pay for. We were going to give gate revenue back to the associations. Sydney have said it’s their area. Let’s see them match that investment.

“We were the best location for a club in Sydney. Will Macarthur be ok in 10 years, the answer is yes. But if they wanted immediate success to boost the A-League over the next five years and an ongoing powerhouse club to lift the competition and tap 10,000 fans, we were it.”

Gardiner said the A-League’s television viewership and attendances spoke for themselves and that Southern could have provided a strong boost to the competition.

“We were going to establish a great, community-based club. Innovative, with youth development programs. A world-best training facility. A club that [inaugural chairman] Les [Murray] imagined, a modern football club in a football-hungry area with thousands of disengaged supporters,” he said.

“I’ve said to [St George Football Assocation general manager] Craig [Kiely] and [Sutherland Shire Football Assocation general manager] Jeff [Stewart] how disappointed we’re not working with those two outstanding associations to create this great, community-based club.”