New Central Coast Mariners owner Mike Charlesworth speaks to Michael Cockerill in his first major interview since taking a controlling interest in the club.
New Central Coast Mariners owner Mike Charlesworth – a lifelong Leeds United fan born-and-raised in Cheshire, England – speaks to footballaustralia.com.au associate editor Michael Cockerill in his first major interview since taking a controlling interest in the Hyundai A-League club this week.
Q. First up Mike, congratulations or commiserations?
A. Let’s put a positive hat on and say congratulations. It’s a wonderful challenge I’ve taken on board, the club deserve it, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I can genuinely say that.
It’s going to be very exciting times. As far as the football club is concerned, the most important thing now is there is a sound financial footing. We can move on from the financial difficulties we’ve had – let’s face it – for the last year or two.
I’ve made the commitment to keep the club running, and that includes the all-important Tuggerah development as well – so now we can really focus on the really important things, which are, hopefully, winning the Premier’s Plate on Saturday, and then the Grand Final.
Q. In terms of housekeeping, was the first priority to get the players and coaching staff paid?
A. Absolutely. That was the difficulty in terms of the time constraints we had in getting the deal over the line. The players and coaches have been paid, but clearly it was difficult to pay them until the deal was put in place.
We all worked towards it in the end, but it was a difficult process and perhaps a bit more complex than we all thought it would be, which is why it took an extra couple of days. But we’re all moving in the right direction, we needed to come to an agreement as far as the club is concerned, and we got there in the end.
Q. It’s not the first time player payment issues have surfaced at the Mariners. Are you confident these issues will no longer be a recurring theme?
A. I’m very confident that now we’ve got the plan in place we can be very positive about the future, and that means the finances as well. That doesn’t mean we will not be seeking assistance in terms of the people who are involved in the club apart from myself, like the two (Wyong and Gosford) councils. We want extra value from everybody involved in football in Australia, and that includes the FFA.
Everybody has to come to the party. I don’t think it’s right that an individual from England should be carrying the financial can for football on the (Central) coast. There are a number of people we’ll be asking to come forward, but we’re very confident of a successful future for the Mariners, put it that way.
Q. You are now the majority shareholder, but you have been an investor in the club for the past three years, which gave you the opportunity to do a lot of homework before you jumped in. What is your general view of the Hyundai A-League at the moment?
A. What I have invested in here is largely the future of the league. To me, if you look at football in Australia at this point in time, what’s happened at the Wanderers is a great success story. Everyone’s talking about it.
Maybe people are starting to get more interested in the Wanderers than the Socceroos, and to me that was demonstrated last night (World Cup qualifier against Oman). That’s what we’re investing in, football in Australia from the grassroots right through to the professional code, and eventually the Socceroos.
Statistically football is growing, relatively quickly, and I see a huge future. As long as we keep going in the right direction, that’s fine. Yes, certain changes have to take place, but that applies to all business. The general direction of the A-League is good.
Q. What sort of leadership can we expect from you in terms of the Mariners? Are you going to be fighting for the club publicly or will you be staying in the background?
A. I’ll certainly be fighting for the club publically. I’ve got my other jobs, and I spend maybe half my time overseas, unfortunately. So Peter (Turnbull) will remain chairman. He knows football inside-out; it runs through his blood, he knows the ethos, the character and the culture of the Mariners, so it’s important he stays part of the team. But I’ll certainly be more involved, especially from a strategic point of view.
Q. People usually describe the Mariners as the smallest club in the competition. Is that the way you see it?
A. Let’s face the facts. We’re the smallest in terms of the so-called catchment area. We’re based in Gosford, which is the smallest centre compared to all the other major cities. So in that respect, we are small. People say we punch above our weight, and we’ve been doing that for eight years.
But that’s not really how we see it. We see that we are one of the top teams in the A-League – we believe that, and we expect that. Our standards are incredibly high, we expect to be fighting for honours every season. We’ve got a great tradition now, a great heart, a great culture, and that will continue. We’re not any less ambitious that anyone else, perhaps we’re more ambitious. Success breeds success. That will continue.
Q. How important is Graham Arnold to your plans, especially in the short term?
A. It’s safe to say Graham is the best coach in the A-League, without a doubt. It’s only a matter of time before he gets offered a big contract in Europe, and it will be very difficult for us to stand in his way, although we will try.
A big club will eventually offer him the sort of challenge he will want. But nobody in Australia will be able to tempt him away, I’d think that’s a safe bet.
Q. Does the same philosophy apply to your players, in other words if they do get bigger offers you won’t stand in their way?
A. The culture of the Mariners is that we’re a team that will always attract the best young talent in Australia. We’ve sold in excess of $3 million worth of players overseas over the last three or four years, which is more than any other club.
Young players can look at the Mariners and say, “They do look after their youth, they do provide a progression”. You can see that in the last few months with Tom Rogic. Does that mean we’re a selling club? I wouldn’t call us a selling club, I’d call us a developmental club.
Q. Are there any parts of the A-League model which you think need particular emphasis in the near future?
A. I believe the clubs need a greater level of autonomy. I would like to slowly move towards a self-ownership model, I would like a greater say in how the league is run.
The new management structure is excellent; David Gallop has got a good team around him, they’re very communicative, they listen to us like never before, so we’re on the right track. But there are areas of improvement.
If we are to attract serious investment, to attract the wealthy investors – and I wouldn’t put myself in that category – then we need to move towards more autonomy. An MLS model, maybe, where you get a greater say in the destiny of your own investment. That’s what I would like to see evolve.
Q. Where do the Mariners themselves need to improve?
A. We have to get to a break-even point as soon as possible. We’re still losing money. The financial difficulties we’ve had has meant certain cutbacks. We lost (former youth coach) Tony Walmsley overseas (Sheffield United), which left a big hole, for instance. So we need to cover that.
But generally speaking the structure is good, the squad is strong enough. It’s more a case of fine-tuning. For instance, it’s my vision to have greater control to have junior teams, rep teams, on the Central Coast. They should be all under the professional club of the area. That gives sponsorship advantages, advantages in terms of marketing. At the moment I see it as very fragmented in the area.
Q. The Centre of Excellence at Tuggerah? Have you cleaned up the situation there?
A. Tuggerah is very much part of the future. The vision put in place by Peter Turnbull and Lyall Gorman was the right one. Football clubs inherently don’t make money, but the commercial activities around football can. That was the intention of the development.
It’s a fantastic development, and it’s my commitment to see that through. It will happen over the next two years. We will have the most successful football-based development in Australia, bar none.
Q. So work will re-start shortly?
Q. And the full vision will be realised?
Q. A different tack. Where does the Asian Champions League fit in your priorities?
A. That’s a difficult one. Financially, we lose money. It’s fundamentally wrong, in my opinion, to go into a competition expecting to lose money. That’s not how it should be. It’s something we have to look at very closely for next season.
Q. Are you suggesting you may not accept an invitation for next year?
A. It’s a big question mark. We need to get to a point of break-even as quickly as possible, so it’s a case of sitting down and looking at the pros and cons.
Q. The Russian investors? Is a deal still possible?
A. It’s still possible, like other deals are still possible. My commitment to this club is to put it on a sound financial footing and see through the (Tuggerah) development. If there are people wealthier than me, and they’re willing to come in – it could be the people from Russia, the people from China, the people from the Moon, who knows – then of course we’ll talk to them.
Yes, if the Russians are willing to come good, then we will sit down and try and strike a deal. We want investment in the Mariners; we don’t want to be turning money down. If that means me leaving the club in six, 12 months- time because it gets sold to Russia’s wealthiest man, most people on the Central Coast wouldn’t be too upset by that.
Q. The final question, then, if someone else does come in to take over, how important to you is it that they keep the culture going?
A. It’s incredibly important that it remains. All the discussions we’ve had with potential buyers, they agree, they believe in the culture. There might be more money around for a marquee player, for instance, but the actual culture won’t change.