Knights drawn into Tinkler's A-League battle

WHETHER the Newcastle Knights like it or not, they’re set to be drawn into Football Federation Australia’s pending lawsuit against the Hunter Sports Group.

The case could result in the governing body chasing up to $100million in damages after Nathan Tinkler’s sudden decision to cut his ties with the Newcastle Jets.

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The chances of a rapprochement between the warring parties dimmed significantly when Tinkler ignored a 5pm deadline yesterday to respond to the FFA’s initial legal letter.

Now the FFA is fine-tuning a battle plan that it believes will help ensure the billionaire coal baron is held to account.

FFA chief executive Ben Buckley has indicated the FFA is set to pursue exemplary damages and aggravated damages in a suit that will enjoin HSG, the Knights, the Jets, and both Tinkler and his HSG chief executive, Troy Palmer, personally.

In a statement last night to the Newcastle Herald, Tinkler made it clear he intended to quarantine the Knights, underlining what he perceived to be the key differences between the A-League and the NRL.

‘‘Soccer has been bogged down in administration and dogged by ailing clubs for decades,’’ he said.

‘‘It has an ownership model of established losses, a failure by the FFA to engage with communities and no sound commercial basis for its business relationships.

‘‘These have combined to guarantee the A-League’s failure in Australia.

‘‘While the A-League is funded by the clubs’ owners, they receive no input into the direction or governance of the game in Australia or the competition.

‘‘That is a very different proposition to the NRL. A-League owners are 100per cent accountable, with absolutely no input into their own competition. It must change before more clubs are lost.

‘‘Rugby league is an established product, which evolved through the Super League war to become the outstanding product it is today. The Knights have always been in my heart since I was a kid and that will not change. We have a great club that will continue to grow.’’

The chances of the Jets remaining in the A-League strengthened after a meeting yesterday between FFA chief executive Ben Buckley and a delegation from the Jets advisory board led by chairman Ray Baartz.

Nonetheless, Buckley maintains the FFA’s focus in the ‘‘first instance’’ is to pursue Tinkler to fulfil his obligations.

A few months after taking an interim licence to finance the Jets in mid-2010, Tinkler stepped in to sign a 10-year licence agreement, which still has eight years to run.

It is the balance of the agreement that is the basis of the FFA’s damages claim, as well as collateral damage it says has been done to the A-League’s image.

Buckley declined to specifically name the Knights as a co-defendant, but left no doubt the FFA’s lawsuit would be all-encompassing, saying: ‘‘We will continue to pursue the Hunter Sports Group to meet their obligations but if they don’t, we reserve the right to take action.

‘‘That means we will pursue the company, any associated companies, as well as any directors. You can’t sign a contract and walk away from it. That’s simply not the way business is done.

‘‘The football community should hold him [Tinkler] to account, and we will hold him to account. Clubs and teams are not playthings, which is why we will vigorously pursue HSG, whatever it takes.’’

Without any warning, Tinkler said on Tuesday that he would be handing back his A-League licence, and while Knights chairman Paul Harragon was quick to suggest the decision would not affect the NRL club, which HSG also owns, that remains to be seen.

It is believed those sponsors and corporate box holders who were sold joint packages for the NRL and A-League seasons have already made their displeasure known, and it will be a difficult legal challenge for the Knights to avoid being caught in the crossfire of the FFA’s ambit claim.

While Tinkler and the FFA prepare the legal battleground, the most pressing issue is keeping the playing squad and coaching staff relatively intact – something players’ union boss Brendan Schwab supports.

‘‘I think everyone understands time is of the essence,’’ Schwab said.

Baartz, whose advisory board could become a defacto management team in the next few months, agrees and is increasingly optimistic the Jets will survive in one form or another after meeting Buckley in Sydney.

‘‘Put it this way, I’m a lot more hopeful than I was this time yesterday,’’ Baartz said.

‘‘First thing is to see if the FFA and HSG can sort out their differences. If not, I’ve got the feeling the FFA are adamant we’ll have a team in Newcastle next season.

‘‘How that will be constructed, I can’t tell you. But Newcastle has proven this season that it warrants a team – you only have to look at the groundswell of the last 24 hours. I don’t think that under any circumstances the FFA will abandon Newcastle, and that’s the pleasing thing. I came out of the meeting feeling very confident about things.’’

Socceroos star Tim Cahill weighed in last night, saying: ‘‘I can only look at the positives, and it seems like Nathan Tinkler has done some great things for football, so hopefully the FFA can convince him to keep his licence.

‘‘The potential in Newcastle is massive – looking from afar, there has to be some sort of harmony.’’

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