'Safety net' secures future for Wellington Phoenix

03:47, Mar 20 2011
Michael Glading and Frank van Hattum
PHOENIX FOCUS: NZF CEO Michael Glading and chairman Frank van Hattum. The chairman has revealed the organisation will prop up the Phoenix if it has to.

The Wellington Phoenix's long-term survival has been guaranteed.

The Sunday Star-Times can reveal meetings between New Zealand and Australian football bosses Frank van Hattum and Ben Buckley have yielded a contingency agreement to salvage the club, should troubled licence owner Terry Serepisos be liquidated by the High Court in Wellington in 29 days.

The Star-Times can also reveal Football Federation Australia chief executive Buckley has made the precautionary move despite Serepisos insisting to the FFA only yesterday that his $100 million loan from alleged fraudster Ahsan Ali Sayed is "100% over the line.'

Yesterday, NZF chairman van Hattum confirmed the meetings with Buckley had been successful and a "safety net" is in place to keep the Phoenix part of the A-League indefinitely.

"We don't know Terry's business and hopefully he can survive. But if he doesn't, it's a whole new ball game," van Hattum said.

"We have been talking with the football association of Australia and we're of the same mind, we want a New Zealand team in the A-League.

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"If there has to be a restructure, New Zealand Football would work very closely with the FFA to make that happen. New Zealand Football would do everything to make that happen.

"Having a professional club is paramount to the development of New Zealand football. Rest assured, both countries are keen on having the licence continue. We have an understanding."

Asked whether New Zealand Football has a contractual obligation to keep the Phoenix going, van Hattum said: "Not that I'm aware of."

But it seems a Fifa-signed agreement put in place when the Phoenix's A-league licence was extended (to the end of the 2015/16 season) in April last year leaves NZF with no choice but to wade in.

"Is there a contractual obligation? I don't believe so. But there is an obligation because we've got an agreement that Fifa signed saying we [NZF] are there and able to have a licence for X-number of years," van Hattum said.

"I think it might be semantics. At the end of the day, we're all on the same page."

Asked whether New Zealand Football, as the Phoenix's original licence holder which sub-let to Serepisos for the first three years, could be implicated by Serepisos's financial woes, van Hattum said, categorically, no. "We have absolutely no obligation there at all. The licence is totally unrelated to the business issues. There is no liability for New Zealand Football. We have no running of the club, no management of the club whatsoever."

New Zealand Football's only business-related input has been the agreement to co-employ manager Ricki Herbert and the payment of "regular financial support packages" revealed by Fairfax Media in September last year.

The size of these payments remains unknown on the grounds "it's a commercially sensitive arrangement" but van Hattum has always said they were "very modest" sums.

Meanwhile, Serepisos is continuing to express utmost confidence to the FFA over a $100m loan from Ahsan Ali Syed and his organisation, Western Gulf Advisory – in the face of continued media and client pressure alleging the Indian's low-interest loans are part of an elaborate financial crime racket.

In a text message sent to the Star-Times last night, A-League head of operations Lyall Gorman said: "I spoke with Terry again today and he assures me his [sic] 100% across the line."

But with Serepisos making no official announcement publicly, time is quickly running out on the property tycoon, making NZF involvement almost certain.

Asked whether Serepisos had given NZF any absolute guarantees, van Hattum stopped short of saying yes, but made it clear Serepisos has always been "very, very positive" in communications with the national body.

"Every time Terry is dead and buried he's still there," van Hattum. "He's always been very, very positive. We shall wait and see, like anyone else, we just don't know."

If or when NZF take the Phoenix reins, the distribution of the All Whites' World Cup prize money would surely be up for review, raising the question of how long NZF could afford to bankroll the club.

Inevitably, at some point finding a new private owner would be essential, van Hattum admitted.

And while he confirmed NZF had received expressions of interests from potential owners, he said until talk turns to action, the expressions mean very little.

"I think it would be like the last process, people will put their hand up and it will move at a very quick pace," he said.

"But once again, it will need someone who has got the same commitment and passion that Terry did. People sometimes forget he's made a significant financial commitment.

"There's been lots of rumours [about buyers] and we've got to be careful. Everyone on the rich list has been named but I'm a bit more practical than that. Last time there was a lot of talk, but only one man came through.

"The best deal would be for to Terry to stay involved, so we'll wait and see."

Sunday Star Times