Riches to rags: The rebirth of Gold Coast United, Australia’s most ridiculed team

The attention of the sporting world – or at least the parts of it that were once conquered by Britain – is about to turn towards the pristine beaches of southeast Queensland. The Gold Coast is hosting the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Roughly 850km north of Sydney and an hour’s drive south of Brisbane, the Gold Coast is Australia’s Miami. A collection of small townships first established as a holiday resort for the rich, it became a city in its own right in 1949. It’s now the sixth-biggest city in Australia with a population of around 560,000, and is one of the country’s fastest-growing regions. The Gold Coast is famous for its perfect weather, dingy nightclubs, inland canals, high-rise hotels and ‘meter maids’ – the friendly, golden bikini-clad women who used to roam the streets of Surfers Paradise and top up expiring parking meters to save motorists from being fined. One thing it absolutely isn’t famous for is sport.

The Gold Coast is considered a ‘sporting graveyard’, a reputation it’s been unable to shake for more than two decades. Many teams in many different sports have tried and failed to establish themselves in this transient, tourism-focused region. Most locals would rather be at the beach or sinking beers at the surf club on a Sunday afternoon than sitting in the stands, taking in a live game. They’ve all come and gone – the Chargers, the Seagulls, the Blaze, the Cougars, the Bears. Only rugby league’s Titans and the Suns, an Aussie rules team, are still around.

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No Gold Coast outfit has ever won a national title or established a genuine winning culture. But away from the epicentre of the Commonwealth Games is a brand new football club who are trying to buck the trend.

In fairness, it isn’t entirely new. Gold Coast United spent three seasons in the A-League, Australia’s top tier, but fared worse than any other team before it. Looking back on their brief stay is akin to recalling a fever dream. The club’s owner and founder was Clive Palmer, a businessman who had built a personal fortune reportedly worth $6.5 billion through mining nickel and iron ore. A rotund, outspoken braggart, he’s best known internationally as the man behind plans to build a modern-day replica of the Titanic. He held gala launch events in Macau, New York and London in early 2013 and engaged a Chinese state-owned shipyard to build ‘Titanic II’. It was supposed to set sail in 2016. There’s no evidence construction ever began.

But when Gold Coast United was launched in 2008, everyone took Palmer seriously. He promised to revolutionise Australian football through his investment, despite having zero prior interest in the sport. He initially wanted to sign David Beckham or Harry Kewell, but after having the difficulties of doing so explained to him by his minders, he settled for Jason Culina, an experienced Australia international who was playing for PSV Eindhoven.

“Clive Palmer is a winner and a man who knows what he wants,” said Culina, the centrepiece of a star-studded squad which Palmer brashly predicted would go through their debut season undefeated. He even let the team use his private jet for away fixtures. It was all very Gold Coast.

After a strong start on the field – including a 2-1 win over Fulham in a pre-season friendly – things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Palmer lost his initial enthusiasm for the venture after clashing with fellow billionaire Frank Lowy, the shopping mall czar who was chairman of Football Federation Australia (FFA). Angry at the cost of hiring the 27,000-seat Cbus Super Stadium from the state government, Palmer started capping attendances at 5,000 and opening only one side of the ground to save money. The PR damage was fatal. After the ‘crowd cap’ was introduced, the club’s average attendance plummeted to just 3,034 – not counting derby matches against Brisbane Roar, when the stands would swell with the opposition’s orange jerseys, or the one time an uncharacteristically charitable Palmer decided to let punters in for free.

Gold Coast United quickly became the butt of national jokes. Palmer threatened to pull funding for the club after their first season. He picked arguments with Lowy at every opportunity. He installed a 17-year-old as captain and then sacked the team’s coach, Miron Bleiberg, when he tried to talk it down as a ‘ceremonial’ appointment. He told a newspaper he didn’t even like football and thought rugby league was a much better sport. Palmer’s final action as owner – essentially an invitation for the FFA to move in and take control of the club – was his bizarre decision to plaster the words ‘Freedom of Speech’ on the front of the team’s jersey. Two months later, United were officially put out of their misery, and an embarrassing chapter in Australian football was closed for good. Or so it seemed.

Somehow, Gold Coast United has risen from the dead. The old name, logo and colours have been revived and the club resumed operations in 2018, playing in Queensland’s semi-professional state league – the closest thing Australia has to a national second division. If Palmer’s approach was top-down, the reborn Gold Coast United is all about building rock-solid foundations – from the very bottom of the grassroots to, perhaps one day, a return to the very top of the A-League. All this while using the intellectual property of the country’s most ridiculed sporting franchise. But how? And more importantly, why?

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Gold Coast United’s new home is at the Robina Raptors junior rugby league club. It isn’t much – just a humble clubhouse and two muddy fields. There are no seats. Cbus Super Stadium can be seen in the background on the other side of the train tracks, serving as a constant reminder of where this club once was and where it intends to be again.

If Clive Palmer’s outfit was born with a silver spoon in its mouth, the latest iteration is run on the smell of an oily rag. Every administrator at the club is a volunteer. Coaches juggle full-time jobs with their football duties. Senior players earn up to $300 per win – out of a wage pool of $50,000 – and collect nothing if they lose. Only family, friends and the most fiercely committed supporters attend games in the NPL Queensland, which has no broadcast deal but does stream matches weekly on Facebook to no more than a few hundred viewers at any one time. The club’s annual budget is $700,000 – just under what Jason Culina earned in his first season with Gold Coast United. The hope is that from little things, big things will grow.

It was a mix of shame over the past and ambition for the future which sparked United’s rebirth. The key driver was Sports Gold Coast, a philanthropic group of local businessmen who were tired of hearing about how sport simply wasn’t for their city. A not-for-profit entity, Sports Gold Coast is the conduit between the local sporting and business communities, using the connections of its membership to arrange sponsorships and partnerships far beyond what grassroots volunteers could manage on their own. Among their aims is to bring the America’s Cup to the Gold Coast and establish a local Twenty20 cricket franchise. Their chairman, Geoff Smith, also happens to be Palmer’s former lawyer and had a front-row seat to the club’s spectacular A-League demise.

Smith approached Danny Maher, a successful IT entrepreneur, to join the Sports Gold Coast cause. Maher has his own football links: his father-in-law is Howard Wilkinson, the last Englishman to win the top-flight title with Leeds in 1992. Maher would later become United’s chairman when they were issued a licence to play in NPL Queensland.

“I tend to do a lot of philanthropic work and I’m very big on giving,” he says. “I just think there isn’t enough giving in the world. But I don’t meet many other people like that. I just wanted to ask, what’s your motivation? [Smith] said, ‘We just want to fix the sport. I was Clive Palmer’s lawyer when we lost Gold Coast United and I just can’t go to the grave without fixing that up.'”

In many ways, United have now got what they never had under Palmer: a genuine grassroots connection. The first team is largely comprised of untried locals in their early 20s, most of whom were regulars in the stands at Gold Coast United games in the A-League. There’s a community feel to training nights, where dozens of parents congregate along the touchlines as the junior teams run through their drills side by side. Importantly, every local club in the region was given the chance to become part of United’s governance make-up.

“It’s grassroots driven by the business community and the football community in unison,” Maher explains. “What’s happened a lot of times on the Gold Coast is the sports marketing people have gone, ‘we want to have a team on the Gold Coast,’ and then gone, ‘there you go Gold Coast, that’s your team.’ It hasn’t come from inside.”

If you’d have told first-team manager Sean Lane a year ago that Gold Coast United would be returning, he’d have burst into laughter. “No chance,” he says. “It stunk, from the people who were running it previous. They went into it with the best intentions but it ended up a mess.”

Originally from Hereford, Lane carved out a modest career in the English lower leagues, making one league appearance for Derby County under Peter Taylor and later joining Preston Lions and Brunswick Juventus in Australia’s National Soccer League. Last season, he coached Brisbane Strikers to the NPL Queensland title, before being won over by the “vision” for the Gold Coast. “I knew it would be successful because I knew the people involved,” Lane says. “They’ve got balls.”

There was, of course, rigorous debate over whether Gold Coast United should take on the old name, which still carries baggage from the Palmer era.

“The flipside of it, which I was pushing really hard, was that the community lost this club,” Maher says. “They want it back. We’re the only people who have the capacity to bring it back, so let’s leverage the good parts of the history and I don’t think the baggage will come if Clive’s not involved. If you look at history, there are plenty of examples where an owner has bankrupted a club and someone has come and brought it back and the new guys do not get the shit. They’re applauded.”

Maher was vindicated when supporters were given a choice of three club badges to vote for on Facebook, and picked the one that was a simple update of the original A-League crest. After handing over the rights to the name and logo, Maher checked in with Palmer, who’d been busy creating his own political party and winning a seat in the Parliament of Australia. He’d also spent time buying golf courses, turning the former home of the Australian PGA Championship into an animatronic dinosaur theme park featuring a life-sized mechanical T-rex named Jeff.

Most concluded Palmer’s dalliance with football was a mere vanity project with the sole aim of increasing his public profile – which, in recent times, has taken a further battering after the collapse of his Queensland Nickel refinery, which has left hundreds of workers out of pocket to the tune of $70m. He now spends his days posting memes and poems on social media. “He was just like ‘Oh, jeez. I wish you guys well.’ That’s it,” Maher says.

Lane intends for his young team to take on a hard-nosed edge, as he confronts a challenge which many coaches before him have grappled with: how to forge a winning team culture in a tourist town with so many distractions. Being local, and accustomed to living in paradise, helps.

“There’s an intrinsic sense of pride because this is where most of these kids come from,” Lane says. “I know in Brisbane, the feeling from a lot of people [about Gold Coast sport] is it’s all show and no go. They call us the ‘Spice Boys’. I don’t want anything to do with that. I let my players know exactly what I want out of them – be tough, harder, fitter, have a winning mentality as well as know[ing] how to play. You give me attitude and application over ability and I’ll take that all day long.”

Like most of the Gold Coast in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games, United’s home ground is currently in lockdown, forcing them to play their matches on the road for a large chunk of the season. When it reopens, some of the temporary seating used during the Games will be repurposed as permanent seating at their home ground, which the club hopes to gradually improve during a planned three-year stay at Robina Raptors. Maher’s hope is that the Commonwealth Games will bring other, less tangible legacies for sport on the Gold Coast.

“I lived in Sydney when the Olympics were on; it leaves a bit of a buzz inside you for a long time. It definitely won’t hurt,” he says. The longer-term goal, however, is to go back to the other side of the train tracks.

The A-League is set to add two new teams for the 2019-20 season. The opportunity has arrived much earlier than they would have liked, but Maher and his board have decided to bid. Predictably, they were ridiculed when they announced it. But if they can convince the FFA that the region isn’t scorched earth, and can find the right financial backing with the aid of Sports Gold Coast, they may well have a compelling case. It’ll be boosted further if the local council takes over the management rights at Cbus Super Stadium, which would allow them to offer local teams like United much cheaper rent to play there.

The Gold Coast remains a seductive market, offering rich rewards for the first sport that can truly unlock its potential, and football won’t die wondering. If an A-League return isn’t immediately granted, Maher says United would happily settle for a spot in a future national second division. If that doesn’t happen, they’ll wait. Whenever their second chance comes, the new Gold Coast United intend to make the most of it.

Image credit: Gold Coast United

Riches to rags: The rebirth of Gold Coast United, Australia’s most ridiculed team
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