After all the build up in the media, the Melbourne Football Club AGM was a major letdown with no election result and only 25 minutes for questions, as Neal Woolrich reports.

In the red corner, Gabriel Szondy, PricewaterhouseCoopers bean counter, leading the Team Vision ticket. In the blue corner, Kalgoorlie’s favourite mining magnate, Joseph Gutnick and his Melbourne First team.

Whoever said the MFC was the domain of crusty establishment types needs a reality check – oi vey!

My old polo patron, Sir Antony Leachwell-Smith, sat me down over a cleansing brandy in the Kelvin Club a few weeks back and asked me to attend as his proxy at the controversial AGM and “stick it up that Gutnick fellow, Crullers”. Like so many Melbourne members, Sir Antony was busy waxing the skis for next season so he couldn’t attend the most crucial AGM since the club’s aborted merger in 1996 but he wished me the best of British.

The Melbourne board room this year has had more leaks, infighting and backstabbing than the NRMA under naughty Nicky Whitlam. Joseph called for a board spill mid-season, but when it became clear he wouldn’t get the numbers, he bit his tongue and waited for an end of season election at the AGM.

For the past 6 months the two parties have engaged in some unseemly warfare.

Gutnick got the ball rolling by accusing his deputies, Alan Stockdale and Ian Johnson, of disloyalty, forcing them to stand down. The rest of the board turned against Gutnick over this fracas.

Gutnick’s 5 year reign as president has been nothing if not colourful. From the red and blue yarmulke, to the outspoken criticisms of everyone and everything that might threaten the Demons, to his flamboyant appearances on Eddie McGuire’s “The Collingwood (Footy) Show”, Joe was never far from a headline as Demons president.

To say Diamond Joe polarised opinion is as much an understatement as saying that Gary Ablett played alright in the ’89 grand final.

Early in his reign he decreed that changes needed to be made to arrest the club’s poor performance. Three weeks later, popular coach Neil Balme was Diamond Joe’s first victim.

He also fessed up to salary cap breaches committed prior to his presidency. Not long after, CEO Cameron Schwab was on his bike and peddling all the way to another salary cap controversy in Fremantle.

But his confrontational methods bore fruit, with appearances in the 2000 grand final and 1998 preliminary final.

Cracks started appearing this year when commentators ran the cost-benefit ruler over Joseph’s presidency. The $ 3 million he initially pledged to the club – of which $300,000 remains outstanding – didn’t quite stack up against the various redundancy payouts and AFL-imposed fines for salary cap breaches and Joseph’s outspoken ways.

But the paranoia about disloyalty was the beginning of the end for Joseph, culminating in the club’s AGM board election.

Gabriel Szondy, the club’s finance director, had chaired the club in the interim and had set up the “Team Vision” ticket as an alternative to Joe’s crew, which included unionist Greg Sword. Team Vision’s greatest drawcard was club legend Robbie Flower.

My sponsor to the meeting, Sir Antony, had the finest legal minds at the esteemed law firm of Abercrombie and Grey prepare a compelling brief which I was to deliver at the meeting in speaking against the candidacy of Joseph in the most emphatic terms. Among the issues which really put the gunpowder in Sir Antony’s pipe were:

Gutnick put plenty of noses out of joint by airing the club’s dirty linen in public, mainly on The Collingwood Show. Eddie Everywhere even launched Joseph’s aborted campaign mid-season. And why does Eddie keep giving Joseph air time? It wouldn’t be a kick-back for stitching up the Sportsview internet deal a few years back, would it? None of the existing directors (prior to the AGM) wanted to serve with him, with the exception of his puppet Michael Givoni. Even people who he originally recruited to serve on the board such as Beverly O’Connor were distancing themselves from him.

Endorsing club legend Robbie Flower and trying to align himself with Flower when Flower was opposed to Gutnick was pathetic. He offended just about anyone of influence at the AFL. His comments on the David Schwarz racial vilification case before it had gone before the tribunal resulted in a “please explain” from AFL CEO Wayne Jackson. Joseph’s defence was “bugger them, I won’t pay their $20,000 fine anyway”.

His constant bickering in the middle of the football season arguably affected the club’s on field performance. His business credentials are now just about shot to bits.

The notice of the meeting set the tone for what was to come – a complete gagging of debate on the election.

The election voting was to be conducted by postal vote or by voting prior to the meeting itself on the night. Because the voting was closed before the meeting, the club deigned that no discussion on the poll would be entertained at the AGM. Therefore, discussion on the accounts would be taken and “general business” would be discussed, but this would not include discussion on the election or the candidates.

The next “irregularity” was that CEO John Anderson was asked to chair the meeting.

There was no explanation why interim club chairman Gabriel Szondy didn’t chair the meeting. Presumably it was so that he could not be seen to politicise the AGM and give his side an unfair advantage.

Anderson strictly adhered to the “no election discussion” edict and flatly refused to answer any questions on the election.

This rankled many members, the majority of whom were clearly there to discuss the election. It certainly rankled Sir Antony when I reported to him the next day that the expansive brief prepared by his silks was all for nothing.

The meeting itself started 20 minutes late, for which CEO Anderson apologised, and when he extended a welcome to the large media contingent situated right in the middle of the hall, the crowd yelled “sit down!”. The press corps skulked off to the side of the hall as Anderson said “I withdraw that very warm welcome to the meeting”.

Only three senior players were there representing the club – captain David Neitz, Andrew Leoncelli and the previously much-maligned number 42, Peter Walsh. Contrast that to the Collingwood AGM the previous day where every player was there plus just about the entire coaching staff, bootstudders, doormen, and orange cutters.

Anderson informed the meeting that some 80% of the membership had voted, which he thought was some sort of record that Computershare could vouch for. It probably is a record and not at all surprising, given the way Australians have their priorities completely arse-about. They get more fired up about a footy club election than they do with a corporate poll in a company which might just be frittering away their retirement nest egg.

Gabriel Szondy presented a very grim finance director’s report. He said the result was “clearly below expectations” and reported a trading loss before abnormals of $390,000. But there was a $1.25 million abnormal loss, $800,000 of which related to an aborted social club venture in Fawkner, the cultural capital of the universe, which was scuttled when Slacko Bracko unexpectedly introduced pokie restrictions. When the club found they couldn’t make a gaming venue out of it, it was not going to be viable.

The club had expected to turn a profit of about $120,000 for the 2001 year, so its result even before abnormals was half a million wide of the mark. When you include abnormals, 05

Despite this, Szondy gamely forecast a “small net profit” for the 2002 year.

Come question time, I jumped on this and asked how credible this forecast was given the 2001 prediction was so amiss.

This ruffled plenty of feathers amongst the membership. One sensed the venerable members were clearly pro-Szondy. The poll result obviously backed this up.

Szondy settled the angry punters down saying “that’s a fair enough question”. He explained that the 2001 result was so far below expectations because of poor on-field performances affecting gate receipts, fundraisers raking in less cash than expected, a few unexpected losses at their Colonial home games and the failure to reach the finals putting a big dent in their coffers.

In his address, Szondy noted some positives – the increase in membership, the success of the “Demons shop” and a strong increase in executive sponsors who were given a few Eddie McGuire-esque plugs during the night. While Szondy is trying hard at giving obscure plugs, he really should come along to a Collingwood function and learn a thing or two from the young master.

Szondy also mentioned that the club’s return from its financial services operations was “below expectations”. What this “financial services” business was is anyone’s guess, and why a football club is involved in it is also a mystery.

He also noted that the club’s football department makes up 54% of its recurring expenses, ranking it in the lowest quartile of the AFL clubs. Perhaps if the club splashed a bit more moolah at the players and coaching staff, it might see better results, 05

Finally, Szondy reported that the club’s total liabilities exceeded its total assets and therefore the board had to sign a declaration that there was a reasonable expectation of the club being able to pay its debts as and when they fall due. He said this was not taken lightly, but it seems the major factor that confirmed their ability to remain solvent was the promise of increased AFL dividends.

The Demons can consider themselves lucky that the AFL has stitched up the latest TV rights deal with Rupert and friends, otherwise they could have just as easily gone the way of Fitzroy in 1996 and been merged into oblivion.

The club had the happy duty of handing out a life membership to one Ron Mather, a bloke who had been a property steward at the club for 20 years. The tears welled up and got too much for Ron on a couple of occasions – not even generous rounds of applause from the floor gave him time enough to compose himself.

While one might sneer and say “get a grip, Ron, it’s only footy”, people like Ron demonstrate how passionate Victorians in particular are about their footy.

The floor was opened up for questions about half an hour into the meeting. Question time lasted all of half an hour, with 10 members plus your truly getting a chance to pipe up.

Absolutely pathetic.

When Anderson had had enough questions, he asked that nobody else approach the microphone (I was next in line with somebody behind me) and said he would make announcement regarding the poll after the bloke behind me had asked his question.

His “announcement” was that there was no announcement on the poll. The returning officer had advised him that it would be at least an hour before they could deliver a result, so Anderson closed the meeting and said he would come back in about 20 minutes to update the meeting.

A vast majority of the people in attendance (approximately 1,600) stayed the distance, only to have Commando Ando deliver the news that the returning officer thought it would be at least two hours before a result could be delivered.

What a disgrace.

Anderson bade everyone goodnight and not even some spirited cries of “what about more questions?!” could convince him to re-convene the meeting.

When your club has a shocker of a year both on and off the field, you must face the music and give the members answers when they pay up each year and bother to attend the AGM.

And to completely stifle debate on the one issue that caused most people to attend the meeting – the election – is a huge slap in the face to the loyal members.

The poll result itself was a lay down misere – Szondy’s team won all 10 board positions, with Gutnick polling some 2,000 votes less than the worst-performed Team Vision candidate.

Gutnick pledged to not upset the apple cart and let the Team Vision board press on in the best interests of the club. Perhaps Joseph will now turn his attention to his many friends in Kalgoorlie.

And will Diamond Joe pay up the remaining $300,000 he pledged to the club?

“We’ll look into that.”

Crullers can be reached at [email protected]