“I would still send the Stajcic reply to Chris Nikou and ask him to confirm his earlier advice not to interview him,” McGeoch’s email said. “It is a powerful response and if leaked after our final report would make quite a story. That concerns me a little . Happy to discuss.”
Football Federation Australia and Nikou have both been approached for comment.
The exchange raises significant questions over the review and whether it was actually conducted independently of the FFA board, which was heavily criticised for its handling of Stajcic’s removal in January.
Stajcic is now the coach of the Central Coast Mariners, and the A-League club said he would not be commenting on the matter when contacted by the Herald.
The revelation comes after the release on Thursday of a 10-page summary of the panel’s report to the board, which has been slammed as a “failure” by FFA’s former public affairs boss Bonita Mersiades.
The review has also raised eyebrows within the game for some peculiar recommendations – including the suggestion that official leadership appointments should require approval from the board.
The key finding is that the panel could uncover no proof that a “formal ‘lesbian mafia'” existed within football or that there was any bias or agendas behind Stajcic’s axing.
The saga was used as a case study by the panel, who said there was nothing to substantiate allegations he was the target of a concerted campaign by unnamed forces within the women’s game.
“Traditional media articles and social media ventilated the notion extensively and the Panel has not been able to find evidence that the FFA took any proportionate action to address the issue nor protect the individuals who were the target of this speculation,” the report read.
The term ‘lesbian mafia’ had been used by some sections of the football community to describe those accused of orchestrating Stajcic’s demise, although Stajcic denied ever using it.
But Mersiades, a former team manager of the Socceroos who has campaigned internationally for improved governance in football, took aim at the report, which she described to the Herald as a confusing overreach that did little to explain why Stajcic was sacked.
The report recommends that football take on an “athlete-centric mindset”, without defining exactly what that meant, and claimed that doing so could “create huge dividends” for FFA, “grow the business” and give Australia a “competitive edge” in the sport without explaining how.
“If the FFA board and the review committee had been serious about these issues, they would have opened up the inquiry for anyone to have input because the circumstances around the Alen Stajcic sacking, and the actions of one board member, were responsible for significant ill-will in the football community for the entire year,” said Mersiades, who is also president of Women in Football, a new advocacy body for which Stajcic is a director.
“This summary report does nothing to advance knowledge on the matters around that central issue or to improve confidence and trust in the structures in place for governance of the game in Australia. In that regard, it is a failure.
“What it does do, based on the summary report, is appear to have gone beyond its terms of reference; conclude that national team success will come from a focus on ‘athlete centricity’ without any evidence to support such a claim; use jargon without context or relevance; read like a text book on governance for Year 12 students; make recommendations that appear ignorant of what is already in place in a national team environment in some instances; and contradicts itself.”
Professional Footballers Australia, the players’ union, fully endorsed the report and its recommendations but was unable to answer further questions from the Herald.
“The Independent Review has identified manifest deficiencies in the existing set-up,” a PFA statement said.
“To address this, the Independent Review has recommended improvements in the management of athletes within the national team set-up to ensure the FFA performance model genuinely reflects global high-performance standards which now are inseparable from the holistic wellbeing of, and duty of care to, athletes.
“We look forward to FFA implementing the recommendations in full.”
The report said athletes were “wary” of speaking directly to the three-person panel and that the role of players within the game had been relegated as a result of multiple stakeholders “clamouring for attention” during a transitional period for Australian football governance.
The report’s long list of recommendations includes an immediate audit of pay and conditions to ensure equity for men’s and women’s teams, clear reporting lines within the FFA’s board and management, a “robust” player complaints procedure, an official whistleblower policy, and for a zero-tolerance policy for repeated incidents of poor conduct from players, coaches and staff.
It also pushes for a “management manual” to be developed, with specific guidelines for how to manage relationships between players in the same team, and for the consumption of alcohol on camp.
But the recommendation that the FFA’s board should be mandated to ratify any formal leadership selections within the national teams has also been met with bemusement in coaching circles, with some sources of the belief that would take away some authority from coaches.
The board itself is not immune from criticism. The report recommends a clear code of conduct is defined for directors, and that any board members who breach it should be immediately stood down – a clear reference to Heather Reid, the FFA director who made a public apology to Stajcic for suggesting he was fired because of misconduct.
FFA directors are not currently subject to the federation’s code of conduct, and Reid has recently returned to the board after a lengthy leave of absence due to medical reasons.
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.