“Fearless” Facer evokes memories of an era when club “secretaries”, as they were then called, were all-powerful. Their job description was a misnomer because they couldn’t type or take shorthand. In some cases they wouldn’t answer the phone.
But they were the dominant figures at the club. Think of Canterbury’s Peter “Bullfrog” Moore, Manly’s Ken “Arko” Arthurson and Parramatta’s Denis “The Emperor” Fitzgerald. The coach was the only one capable of challenging their authority, and Jack Gibson left the Eels after a dispute with Fitzgerald.
Since the era of these powerful club bosses, their status has been eroded. Corporate governance has played a role. Whereas a CEO could often make decisions unilaterally, most matters today go before the board.
Club chairs, particularly high-profile ones – such as the Roosters’ Nick Politis, Souths’ Nick Pappas and the Cowboys’ Laurence Lancini – are well known while their chief executives are not.
Chairs used to meet annually and chief executives monthly. Now it has been reversed, with chair meetings regular and newsworthy events. This has been the case in AFL for decades, with prominent businessmen and politicians, such as former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett leading Hawthorn and media personality Eddie McGuire president of Collingwood.
But AFL clubs have also enjoyed stability at CEO level, allowing them to set a strategy and follow it.
Former Australian Rugby Union chief John O’Neill has long maintained that a successful club has a good chair, a good CEO and a good coach. It’s a combination that won’t guarantee a premiership every year but usually ensures a club will be in the mix at season’s end.
Add an experienced football manager, such as the Storm’s Frank Ponissi and Souths’ Shane Richardson, and a club is in a strong position to stay at the top.
The problem for the NRL is the high level of turnover in top positions, particularly CEOs.
Johnston’s planned departure at the beginning of next season, after a brief second tenure, follows the exit of seven club bosses since the end of last season. A further two returned from suspension. Factor in the coaching merry-go-round at the end of last season, when Des Hasler returned to Manly, Michael Maguire took the job at Wests Tigers, Ivan Cleary moved to Penrith, and Wayne Bennett and Anthony Seibold swapped clubs. Another two coaches, the Titans’ Garth Brennan and the Knights’ Nathan Brown, have been sacked.
Brisbane’s Paul White and Canberra’s Don Furner are the only bosses who have been in their jobs for more than five years. Melbourne’s Dave Donaghy is the next most senior.
By contrast, the Eels, Sharks and Sea Eagles have had about five each in this time. Significantly, all three clubs have been guilty of salary cap breaches in the same period.
While some argue a strong boss would never have allowed the club to cheat on the cap, it also reflects the difficulty of a job where the chief executive is buffeted by more influential figures.
Manly have appointed Stephen Humphreys to replace interim CEO Gary Wolman. Humphreys returns to the NRL six years after resigning at West Tigers, where he served for four years. However, his gain has been balanced by the loss of the corporate knowledge of the Eels’ Bernie Gurr, who led the Roosters for nine years. Little-known Jim Sarantinos has entered the revolving door at Parramatta.
Perhaps Dragons fans who chanted “Oust Doust” would be happy to see their old boss back.
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.