There’s been nothing on the field as dirty as the boardroom fight at the Parramatta Eels rugby league franchise this year. After months of mud-slinging, private investigators and even a death threat, it finally boiled over on Saturday.
Voters turned on Eels chairman Roy Spagnolo at the leagues club elections, dumping him from the post and sweeping his “Parra 4 Ever” ticket from office. The ParraFirst ticket, led by former Eels great Steve Sharp, claimed five of the seven seats on the board.
But it was Joe Saad who proved a central figure. The board member of the leagues club was aligned to Parra 4 Ever (formerly known as “3P — Parramatta, pride, passion”) but split from the ticket and ran unsuccessfully as an independent on Saturday. He recently sent flyers out that read: “While I am very proud of what has been achieved with the current board, there comes a time when people’s ideas and visions differ.”
Crikey understands subsequent to the split, Saad’s family has received death threats from an anonymous source. Private investigators were hired who claimed the threats were coming from a former NRL player. There is no suggestion the threats are linked in any way to Spagnolo or anyone involved in the Parra 4 Ever campaign. Saad did not want to be interviewed.
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Sharp told Crikey: “It’s general knowledge that Joe and his family were subject to death threats but I’m not at liberty to discuss what has happened. People enter football clubs to try and make a difference with the best of intentions and no one should be subject to these vile actions. They should be dealt with by the appropriate authorities.”
Phil Sim, owner of the 1EyedEel website and a member of the ParraFirst ticket, which was unsuccessful at last December’s football club elections, reckons Saad’s defection was costly to Spagnolo. “The Joe Saad factor was significant. He is a very popular director and his supporters took many votes from Roy’s group,” he said.
Crikey reported in March on Sim’s fight with Spagnolo and the leagues club board after Spagnolo took exception to a satirical cartoon. Sim has since been suspended by the board for 12 months for, according to a letter he received, “failure to adequately monitor your 1EyedEel website to ensure that it does not facilitate the disparagement of, or publication of defamatory comment with respect to, the Board and the Senior Management of the Parramatta Leagues Club”. Sim requested to know what exactly was defamatory and was told: “I note that under subclause 49(b) (viii) of the Constitution the Disciplinary Committee is not required to give you reasons for its decision.”
Many supporters saw this as politically driven given Sim opposed Spagnolo in the December election, an attempt to muzzle dissatisfaction with the board. Social media went into overdrive with claims Spagnolo was restricting freedom of speech about the NRL team’s lack of success, including winning the dreaded wooden spoon last year. Sharp told Crikey: “He was very hard done by and should not have been suspended. We will be discussing this at the annual general meeting tonight.”
“Moments later a burly security guard approached me and asked me to leave the leagues club car park.”
Sim says it’s one of the dirtiest elections he’s witnessed (he refuses to discuss the threats made to Saad). Having approached directors Spagnolo and Sid Kelly to talk about his suspension outside of the club, Sim was told by both that he should move away from the club altogether because he was barred from the premises. “Moments later a security guard approached me and asked me to leave the leagues club car park. So I walked out on the street and handed out flyers there,” he claimed.
Another ploy that drew the ire of Sharp’s team was the message from leading player Eric Grothe Jnr (depicted in the satirical cartoon as the puppet) that was posted on the Parra 4 Ever website and on Twitter to his 12,542 followers — claiming he sat behind two unnamed ParraFirst candidates at a football match and observed them barracking for the opposition team:
“These two were actually quietly cheering on the Cowboys. They actually believed that a loss would help their ticket get more votes. For me, this just cemented the fact that they want to worm their way onto the board for the stroke of their own egos and status.”
Sim says the ploy backfired. “No one took it seriously and he wouldn’t name the candidates. We had two former deputy lord mayors of Parramatta and a former Eels great on the ticket so the allegation had absolutely no substance,” he said.
On Friday, the eve of the election, Parra 4 Eva ticket suddenly had access to the email addresses of leagues club members despite both camps being told weeks ago they wouldn’t be allowed access. Parra 4 Ever then sent a marketing email to members on why they should vote for them. It wasn’t until Sharp’s ticket realised what had happened that they approached a senior employee of the leagues club and were told they had checked the rules again and it was OK for them to release the list.
“But they only gave the list to the rival ticket,” Sim said. “They didn’t inform us. The email talked about how the board put new escalators in the club but didn’t say why the footy team kept losing.”
In an interview with Crikey, Sharp expressed support for current coach Ricky Stuart and current CEO Ken Edwards, and said ex-chief Denis Fitzgerald had “moved on” and won’t be employed in any capacity at the leagues club.
“There will be no mass sackings as has occurred previously,” he said. “We will judge people on their merits. If they are doing a good job and we are confident of their loyalty and trust then everything will be fine. I’m quite happy to work with the other directors, one of whom is Eric Grothe Snr [father of Eric Grothe Jnr]. He adds great value to our club. I want to mend bridges with former players and board members.”