SECRET talks in a Brisbane airport hangar between billionaires Nathan Tinkler and Frank Lowy secured the Newcastle Jets’ survival.
In a stunning backflip, Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group (HSG) said yesterday it would continue to fund and operate the Jets in the A-League for the next eight years.
Newcastle’s football flagship had been in limbo since HSG said three weeks ago it intended to relinquish the Jets’ A-League licence, citing irreconcilable differences with Football Federation Australia (FFA), two years into a 10-year participation agreement.
HSG reaffirmed its stance 11 days ago, despite threats of a lawsuit from the FFA.
FFA had begun investigating alternative ownership options, including a community-based model involving Lake Macquarie businessman Andrew Poole and a supporters’ trust.
HSG chief executive Troy Palmer and FFA counterpart Ben Buckley had been unable to broker a compromise.
In a last-ditch effort to resolve the dispute, FFA chairman Lowy flew to Brisbane in his private jet on Sunday to meet Mr Tinkler.
It was the first time two of Australia’s wealthiest and most powerful men had talked since Mr Tinkler’s shock announcement. Mr Palmer and Mr Buckley were understood to have been present.
‘‘Frank Lowy flew to Brisbane to meet with me face to face and I took that as a sign of goodwill,” Mr Tinkler said.
‘‘We now have a way forward and I remain committed to ensuring the Newcastle Jets is one of the most successful clubs in the A-League.’’
At the heart of the dispute was a $3.5million acquisition fee Mr Tinkler was charged when he took over the licence from the financially embattled Con Constantine in September 2010.
The coal baron also had major concerns over the financial viability of the league and the lack of input from club owners in how it was run.
Details of the peace deal remain confidential, but Mr Lowy said FFA had ‘‘made some concessions in good faith in order to resolve the matters’’.
“Today, my confidence is renewed over Nathan’s personal drive to make the Jets and the A-League successful,’’ he said.
‘‘We agreed on a way forward that addresses the issues HSG have raised and we are now going to get on with developing the game together in a key region for football.
“With more than 10,000 Jets members and an average crowd this season over 12,000 HSG has demonstrated its ability to engage with the community and to run a successful team and club.’’
The news on HSG’s change of heart was met with widespread relief by Jets players, coaching and support staff and fans alike.
Chief executive Robbie Middleby will address the players this morning.
‘‘It has been a difficult time for players, staff and especially the fans,’’ Middleby said. ‘‘We have a football team. That is the most important thing.’’
Earlier, Middleby said: ‘‘With all the confusion surrounding the situation, it was difficult to clearly understand what this meant for the future of the Newcastle Jets. Be assured, during this time our commitment to football and the region has never wavered.
‘‘This outcome quite simply would not have been possible without Nathan Tinkler’s generosity, the total commitment of HSG’s CEO Troy Palmer or the passion and enthusiasm shown by our members towards the Newcastle Jets.’’
Coach Gary van Egmond said he would prepare for next season.
‘‘We had already planned the pre-season and had a lot of things in place,’’ van Egmond said. ‘‘We were just waiting for the green light. That has come through now and it is all systems go.
‘‘I’m over the moon HSG have retained ownership. Realistically it is the only model that would be successful in Newcastle. It will give sustainability and longevity to football in this area.
‘‘The A-League is the glamour side. There are also a number of programs involving junior development we are looking to roll out.
‘‘It is all about making sure kids in this area have every opportunity to reach the highest level and have pathways to the Jets.’’
The Jets have filled 15 places on a 23-man roster for next season. They start pre-season training on May 21.
The Herald understands a settlement has also been reached with former marquee player Jason Culina, whose contract will be nullified.
The players union, Professional Footballers Australia, has been working hard behind the scenes on behalf of the players and were delighted by the outcome.
‘‘The past few weeks have been challenging, but the players feel strongly that the HSG brought a new level of professionalism to the club, a new level of community engagement, evidenced by 10,000 members and average crowds of 12,000 and they enjoy playing in that environment and wanted that to continue,’’ PFA chief executive Brendan Schwab said.