The damage done by the FFA’s rush to axe Alen Stajcic goes far beyond the destruction of his reputation and career – and even beyond the divide it’s apparently creating in the Matildas.
It threatens to create a gender war in Australian football which had been uniting as one behind the Matildas, our most exciting, successful and also most personable national team.
Sam Kerr has won over the world with her performances, and the bravery shown by Hayley Raso’s fight to return from a back broken in three places in just a matter of months has inspired everyone.
When once the Matildas were lucky to attract anyone beyond family and friends to their matches, now 15,000 or more will turn out to see them in action.
Every time they play, there is optimism and excitement - qualities rarely seen in any of our other national teams, especially in men’s sport these days.
And then this happened.
A PFA survey went out to 32 Matildas in camp in November and identified concerns over workloads with one mention of skin folds testing and the routine weighing in and out of players at training, which was considered body-shaming.
They also voiced some concerns about pressure being put on them and the supportive environment of the squad.
The results of the survey were given to the FFA in early December and apparently reviewed by Stajcic and the head of woman’s football, Emma Highwood.
They scheduled this week’s Matildas workshop in Sydney to discuss the findings, among other things as part of routine non-ball coaching.
“There was nothing in that report that would have led to the subsequent sacking of the coach,” said one who has seen the survey findings.
“It was a high performance, well-being audit that threw up a few minor issues that could be routinely dealt with at the players’ workshop.
“This did not sound any alarm bells with anyone.”
The survey results were delivered to the FFA in early December after CEO John Didulica and his deputy and former Matilda Kate Gill returned from a trip to the FIFPro conference in Rome.
A few days later however, at the FFA’s December 12 meeting of the newly elected board, a question was apparently asked about what the culture is like in the Matildas – and issues raised in the survey were discussed.
At least one board member insisted it was followed up as a matter of urgency and the OurWatch survey was commissioned.
The survey was sent out and 142 responses received. However only three of them are said to have been from Matildas, and one from a Socceroo. At least one Matilda doesn't even remember ever seeing it.
The overwhelming majority were from non-playing staff, parents and partners.
The three anonymous responses from the Matildas were apparently similar and used the trigger words like “toxic”, “misogynistic” and “bullying” which were later cited by the FFA.
There was also an incident cited where a coaching staff member apparently used a derogatory homophobic term when discussing sleeping arrangements in camp.
Under the two previous coaches, couples within the Matildas were allowed to room together but Stajcic reportedly separated them.
This rapid escalation compared to the PFA survey was considered to show the situation was “deteriorating" and required urgent attention.
It’s understood the OurWatch survey was passed to the FFA last Thursday and one journalist was tipped off on Thursday morning who alerted Alen Stajcic and again by another journalist later that evening.
Stajcic was called in to face the FFA on Friday morning and confronted by the findings. He is reported to have told Gallop his job was to win matches.
The FFA board held an impromptu Friday afternoon conference call and Stajcic was stood down as Matildas coach the following morning at a final meeting with Gallop.
At the Matildas workshop at Coogee’s Crown Plaza Hotel on Monday, players were reportedly in tears when they confronted Gallop.
Some of the players were said to be incensed that comments they had made in confidence had been used to justify sacking the coach instead of simply addressing the issue.
While a clearly shaken Gallop insisted to the press that afternoon that he had not been asked for Stajcic to be reinstated, there are claims that some players at least did ask him for exactly that.
Gallop’s car crash media conference was, some claim, a result of him realising he had been caught up in other people’s agenda.
In the aftermath, an emerging gulf has divided both those involved and those on the sidelines.
For the most part, media has been split along gender lines, with leading female TV journalists insisting Stajcic’s dismissal from his role was the right thing to do.
Opposing that view has largely been male voices, culminating this morning in former Labor leader turned One Nation candidate and men’s rights campaigner Mark Latham tweeting an attack on David Gallop for using OurWatch to sack Stajcic, pouncing on the gender divide as a misogynistic dog whistle.
The issue has not been helped by growing suggestions this was a pre-planned attack on Stajcic by some factions of the new FFA board.
The Sydney Morning Herald today claims Gallop told Stajcic last year that: ”They’re out to get you.”
Coincidentally some tweets to new board member Heather Reid in late December and early January seem to foreshadow Stajcic’s removal and his replacement by former Canberra United coach Rae Dower.
Hope you return very soon Mini, ready in time for the Cup of Nations? By then the Matildas off-field issues should be resolved and @Rae10D will be coach. @ehighwood and @Reidyfour will make things for the best as many are unhappy with the current set-up— Lynda Taylor (@LyndaTaylor76) January 4, 2019
There are also suggestions that some factions within football have been keen to settle old scores with Stajcic over past decisions, while others have allegedly seen an opportunity to promote female coaches into the leading role ahead of the World Cup.
Reid responded to the allegations in the Herald, adding: “I have no grudge against Alen Stajcic. To suggest that I have orchestrated his demise and that I’ve influenced the board members is an insult. Not to me, but the whole board.
“I suggest that it's an ugly mess that some people in the media want to push against women of influence.
“Certain people in the game want to ruin the reputation of pioneers like myself and [former director] Moya Dodd and hard-working people like Emma Highwood just to shift the blame somewhere else."
The divide is deepening with every day. The vagueness of the specific allegations against Stajcic and the FFA’s cynical use of his contract clauses to remove him from the post while silencing him should unsettle everyone.
When questioned by FTBL about why the FFA went for summary dismissal rather than counselling or an official warning process, Gallop focused on the FFA's legal rights to act as they had rather than why they hadn't been able to resolve it any other way.
When the previous coach Hesterine de Reus was removed from the post in 2014, hardly anyone batted an eyelid. The disquiet among the squad was obvious. That was not the case with Stajcic. There were no warning signs of that level of unrest.
As one added: “If there were accusations of career-ending bullying, no-one would have needed any surveys…”
While there may have been some minor issues about player selections, tactics and in camp details, none of it appeared even close to a crisis.
None of the allegations FTBL has been told about Stajcic and his staff’s behaviour appear to be beyond solving by adult discussion and at worst counselling, or ultimately, disciplinary proceedings.
As far as we can ascertain, there were no specific complaints against Stajcic himself personally. His greatest failing, if any, was his reaction to the OurWatch survey results, it seems.
Now we again have another flaming dumpster truck of the FFA’s own creation, sowing seeds of division, distracting from both the great growth of the Matildas and also the Socceroos’ Asian Cup campaign.
It can only undermine our bid for the Women’s World Cup in 2023 - but the damage to the public unity in the Matildas is the greatest concern of all.
And it all just seems so utterly unnecessary.
After the World Cup in June, Staj could easily have been moved on and whoever the best person for the job would be, which could well have been one of the very many excellent female women’s coaches in the running, could have taken over.
Instead we have division, suspicion, recriminations and a shadow hanging over whoever does now get the job...while other sporting organisations look on in horror at the way it's been handled.
Good job, FFA.