Changing times but still sitting pretty after 100 days in hot seat

Comfortable position … FFA chief executive David Gallop has settled into his new role.
Comfortable position … FFA chief executive David Gallop has settled into his new role.

DAVID GALLOP didn't like the look of the offices at Football Federation Australia headquarters when he first arrived. Although plush and new, they lacked something.

''As soon as I walked in, I was a bit shocked to see virtually nothing about football,'' he said. ''It was a sterile and empty place. I thought we should change it.''

A frosted glass wall that immediately greeted visitors has given way to an enormous mural of fans, each of them holding a Socceroos scarf. It is a reminder of who Gallop, and everyone else on this nosebleed level of Whitlam Square, really works for.

''We're changing things around here,'' he says as he moves through the corridors. ''We're opening up the doors.''

It was a nice, figurative expression - but he meant it literally. There were doors open everywhere. Cliques of power-dressers once gathered in closed spaces with euphemistic names like the ''World Cup Room''. No longer, Gallop says. ''Football should be transparent. I think head office should set that example.''

The 47-year-old looks at home in his office. There's no nervous lingering of public relations personnel, a common theme of interaction with his predecessor, Ben Buckley.

A picture of his family sits under his computer screen, spontaneous laughter filling the frame. Life as Super League's legal rottweiler, even as the NRL's commander-in-chief, is another galaxy away.

This is Gallop's 101st day in charge of football. This interview was meant to take place on the 100th day, except Gallop was in Melbourne taking part in the fans forum roadshow. A fitting excuse.

''I've been doing a lot of listening and having a lot of conversations in this first 100 days,'' he said the night before. ''But I don't think there's an end point to that. It's continual. I plan to keep listening for as long as I'm in the job.''

Although keen to keep an ear to the ground, Gallop feels the time has come to start putting his own stamp on things.

''My sense from outside was that the right strategies were in place but they need to be implemented better,'' he says. ''That remains my view, and we're doing so many things to make the implementation more effective. The first of those things I'm doing is to promote John Kelly from CFO [chief financial officer] to COO [chief operation officer].''

Two hours later, a press release confirming as much is released.

As luck would have it, football, after years of struggle, looks to have found traction in the Australian sporting landscape. Gallop feels he arrived at the right time.

''People come up to me and say 'It's going pretty well, isn't it?' and they expect you to respond by saying 'Yeah, it is.' Thankfully, that's exactly what I can say,'' he says. ''They're enjoying being on the freeway with fresh bitumen for the first time in a long while. I've been really pleased, perhaps even humbled by the welcome. My sense is that people in the game have enjoyed the profile I've brought across. That's personally satisfying.''

But Gallop also comes to football with a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as a crisis manager. He does not mind that.

''Rugby league's resurgence over the past 10 years was to do with having the right foundation stones in place as well as dealing with the unexpected events appropriately. Do that, and people keep faith with the game,'' he says.

''That's why rugby league has been through such a resurgence and no doubt, in this job, there will also be issues that come up.''

Gallop knows his answer gives rise to the inevitable question. Will that ''reactive'' tag stick? ''I reject the suggestion - and I challenge the idea that you don't need to be reactive, because you do,'' he said. ''Things happen that are unexpected. You're not involved in a business where different things come off the conveyor belt every day.''

Football might have any number of challenges, but Gallop has no doubt about his No.1 task. ''To spend its money and use its resources prudently, in such a way that rewards the elite end while taking care of the grassroots,'' he says. ''That means success for the national team, growth in the A-League and capturing young players into our game, and connecting that youth pool with A-League clubs.''

If there's a brewing crisis in the A-League, it concerns the club owners. They are traditionally a volatile bunch. Placating them is no mean feat. ''No two clubs are the same, and they have their own individual problems,'' Gallop says. ''We've just undertaken a huge benchmarking exercise for each club. We want to improve their businesses, but I caution in comparing one club with another. There's huge differences in all 10 clubs but I promise to work with each of them.''

Two clubs under the pump this season for failing to draw crowds have been Melbourne Heart and Wellington Phoenix but Gallop is not too worried.

''When I was at the NRL, we always thought Melbourne and Sydney should have two teams each, and we were pleased they didn't,'' he says. ''Melbourne doesn't have the geographic divide Sydney does, which explains the success of the Wanderers. What they've done is unparalleled in world sport, and given the Victory juggernaut, it's tough for the Heart, but they'll get there.

''On the Phoenix, I think the competition for sporting attention in New Zealand is very high, and that's bred an element of fickleness. If you're team isn't winning, it's hard to pull crowds. I know that from the Warriors.''

Gallop knows a thing or two about salary caps, too, but the A-League's unique marquee and guest allowances mean clubs have enormous spending discrepancies. Central Coast shell out $2.65 million on players; Sydney FC spends more than double that. ''The whole area of these marketing service agreements needs a review,'' he says. ''We need to have a look at what needs finetuning.''

In trying to get Lucas Neill a club, the FFA offered to play a large slice of his salary. Sydney, who are already given FFA money to pay part of Brett Emerton's salary, won Neill's services, frustrating several smaller clubs.

''The starting proposition was the FFA's offer was available to all clubs, not just Sydney,'' Gallop says. ''But having the league make a contribution to certain players is unusual to the world that I come out of. Still, nobody could doubt the importance of marquee players in the league this year and having high-profile Australians coming back. It's a unique circumstance.''

Was he disappointed about missing out on David Beckham? Or embarrassed?

''No, not at all. I think it's a feather in the cap that we were even sounded out,'' he says. ''It wasn't to be; they went in another direction.''

One of the big challenges of the job might not have been obvious. The rampant corporatisation of the Socceroos ''brand'' - and their change in attitude - hasn't gone down well with the football public.

''I can see there's definitely a need to reinvigorate the brand of the Socceroos,'' Gallop says. ''There's a level of disconnect we need to address, both with them and the way we present them. The disconnect is even reflected in pure business terms; the ticket numbers aren't what they used to be. We know the active supporter groups around the Socceroos are frustrated.

''Still, there's a once-in-every-four-years opportunity coming up for the connection to be mended and made as strong as ever. We intend to work towards that.''

Little has impressed Gallop more, however, than the fan engagement that occurs at A-League venues around the country.

''I have been absolutely blown away by it. The active fans are brilliant. It's our most unique selling point against the other codes,'' he says. ''I'd say 99 per cent of those fans do the right thing. A few don't, and that creates some headlines, and we remain vigilant about negative conduct. But we, for one moment, can't let that denigrate the experience you get at so many of our grounds. It's a key part of the game's growth potential.''

Just as big a part of the future will be whether football can attract the next generation of fans, but Gallop says it was already as well placed as any other code.

''One of the first games I went to after taking over was at the Newcastle Jets, and I was amazed at how clearly the game has a youthful demographic attached to it,'' he says. ''I've been to many Newcastle Knights games, and they get great support, but make no mistake, we've got the youth wave.

''We've got young people. They're talking about the game, downloading apps, discussing it on social media. That's possibly the most exciting thing I've seen in my first 100 days.''

This story Changing times but still sitting pretty after 100 days in hot seat first appeared on Brisbane Times.