By Michael Cockerill
4 August 2012 - Sydney Morning Herald
A FRAGILE truce has broken out at Belmore, but don't be fooled. The core issues surrounding the dispute between Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Olympic haven't gone away. And the much bigger battle - a long-awaited campaign by football to protect its rights in the turf war with other codes - has only just begun. It just might be that history will record what's happened at Belmore over the last few weeks as the moment the worm finally turned.
The detail of the dispute between the Bulldogs and Sydney Olympic - who should be using the field and when - is mostly a smokescreen for a much more fundamental question. Exactly what were the terms of the $8.7 million government grant handed out in 2010 to begin the process of revitalising a decaying stadium, and were those terms supposed to have both clubs treated equally?
The view of Canterbury council is clear. It has offered the rugby league side a head lease, and the football side a sublease. Sydney Olympic might not be the club it once was - the two-time national champions now play in the semi-professional NSW Premier League - but might is not always right. Sydney Olympic believe they have a lease until 2032 that gives them rights equal to the Bulldogs', and they won't be signing anything to the contrary. Thus the stalemate persists.
It was the local federal MP Tony Burke (member for Watson) who handed over the cheque in front of the cameras two years ago, and he knows better than anyone the substance, and spirit, of the agreement. Burke met both clubs and Canterbury council on Thursday. There seems to be a consensus to ramp down the rhetoric to try to take the sting out of the situation. We'll see how long it lasts. The fact Des Hasler had his team again training on the main field yesterday suggests he couldn't care less.
As an avowed Bulldogs fan, Burke's impartiality will be scrutinised. There are three local football associations in the district - Canterbury, Bankstown and St George - with about 20,000 registered players in Burke's electorate. It might be a safe Labor seat, but that's still a lot of voter angst to be mobilised through social media if the football community feels it's being shafted. Those associations, in particular Canterbury, must ponder whether they should bury their differences with the NSWPL club in order to achieve the common good. Sydney Olympic's plight today could be someone else's tomorrow. Football in Sydney at every level faces a massive challenge in the battle for sporting real estate (see above story).
For Sydney Olympic right now it's about showing discipline, and unity - qualities not normally associated with the club through its tortured 51-year history. The board will meet tomorrow, and the test has only just begun for president George Giannaros and his fellow directors. Make no mistake, this is about survival. Full stop. If Sydney Olympic can't secure a meaningful long-term future for themselves at Belmore , they're gone. There's a lapsed Sydney Olympic fan running every second cafe in the inner-west. How much do they care?
A historical note: while Belmore is the spiritual home of the Bulldogs, Sydney Olympic also have a title claim. The club moved there in 1996 for five seasons - pulling almost 14,000 to a match against Marconi Stallions in 1997 - and after a brief diversion to Shark Park returned in 2004, and have been there ever since. Last year they pulled 10,000 to the NSWPL grand final when the ground , shamefully, was marked for rugby league. When the Bulldogs completely abandoned Belmore eight years ago - who can forget "Oasis" - it was Sydney Olympic who kept the gates open. Now that the Bulldogs are back, should Sydney Olympic's 13-year tenancy count for nought?
It didn't, of course, when the Bulldogs needed them a few years ago to get money from the federal government. Plenty of nice noises were made about co-operation. The facade didn't last long once the money came through.
In a letter to Canterbury council's general manager, Jim Montague, in December 2010 - less than six months after the funding was approved - Football Federation Australia's chief executive Ben Buckley was sufficiently disturbed about what was happening to write: "... it appears that what is currently being proposed is not consistent with the basis upon which the federal government grant was approved. It is also of great concern that it appears that the current proposed use will be converting an essential public facility into virtually an exclusive use facility for a professional rugby league club. This is contrary both to its historical use and to the proposed use as represented in the Commonwealth funding grant ... it is disturbing to learn that the use being proposed significantly increases the use for the Bulldogs rugby league club and, conversely, significantly reduces the access for not only Sydney Olympic, but also for community and school groups."
Since then, the Bulldogs and the council have essentially ignored the FFA's concerns, perhaps assuming their back was turned. It's not. Yesterday Buckley told the Herald: "We took a close interest in this matter in late 2010 when Sydney Olympic's tenure was under threat, and we welcomed the outcome of a 21-year lease to enshrine football access. We are now watching the current developments and liaising with Football NSW. We both have real concerns. Our view is that the Commonwealth funding for Belmore Oval was based on a community benefit for multiple sports , not just one."
In the scheme of things, it might seem a stoush between an NRL heavyweight with a budget of about $17 million and a semi-pro football club with a budget of about $300,000 could have only one winner. And does it really matter anyway? It does.
The FFA (and its predecessors) have sat idly by over decades while the nation's biggest participant sport has been routinely duped by a cosy alliance between rival codes and their government boosters. In terms of facilities and ground use, football, at every level - from grassroots to professional - has been left with the scraps. Sydney Olympic are somewhere in the middle, but fate means they can become the catalyst for change. It's a challenge, but they're up for it. And, for once, so is the FFA.