Sage advice on glory-seeking, Tony

A recent article from Ray Gatt in the Weekend Australian prompted this aggressive retort from Perth Glory owner Tony Sage, referring to an open letter to the club forwarded to Gatt:

"Whoever sent out that letter didn’t have the balls to sign it – and the reality is there are a few individuals and disgruntled ex-employees behind this attempt to destabilise the club."

Now that's an interesting take on reality from Mr Sage - because as one of the people shown the letter before it was sent, this writer can assure you there was no ex-staff involved at all, and the letter originated from within the core of the paying Glory fanbase. Now that's not to say that there aren't disenfranchised ex-employees out there, in fact there seems to be a few, going back a number of years. But none that I know of were involved in the writing of this letter - and the person who penned it has certainly never been an employee, just a mere paying member of the club.

Then again, why should we be surprised? These accusations fit with Sage's historical MO while running Glory - make bold statements, hit the headlines, get the publicity, never mind the detail. Be it the fact that he's going to leave the club, is involved in a personal war with Nick Tana, or is an ongoing victim of FFA injustice, the Glory chairman has never been afraid of getting his name - and maybe the club's too - into media columns. When this was put to him at the post-Edwards fan meeting, his response was that as the owner he could say what he wanted, and without him getting into the headlines the club wouldn't achieve half the things they needed to.

The media, especially over east, seems to have let this slide historically. But lately more and more attention has been placed on Sage's tenure at the club, no doubt amplified by a disastrous season 2013/14. Apart from Gatt's piece based on the fan (not ex-employee) letter, there have been pieces from Les Murray, Simon Hill, Shayne Hope, and David Davutovic, all probing or critical of the club and/or Sage's ownership. While some like Hill kept the kid gloves on in their interview, others such as Davutovic and Hope have taken the club to task in some detail. In keeping with his "say what he likes" attitude (which included the infamous "We're not in the business of changing captains mid-season" after sacking the coach) Sage trotted out the same proof of the club's progress under his tenure to multiple journalists:

"We have been in three finals series out of the last four years"

Sounds impressive, but is it?

While Perth did make finals three out of their past four A-League seasons, so did four other teams - Central Coast, Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar, and the 'high-flying' Wellington Phoenix. What's more, finals series seem to be a poor indicator of overall success - Wanderers made a Grand Final in their first year, Glory have made one in their whole A-League existence. In the last four years, Brisbane and Central Coast have made two apiece. But perhaps the best summary of the difference between what Tony Sage sees and what many fans do is the overall table for the last four seasons of the competition (excludes now-defunct Gold Coast and Fury)

Total points gained in the last four A-League seasons

Total points in the last four seasons

If a finals series were to be held for the last four seasons worth of competition, Glory wouldn’t make it. More worryingly, two of the three teams below them in terms of points haven’t played as many games as the men in purple. As we can see in the expanded table below, Perth simply don’t win enough. In the last four seasons that Tony Sage talks about, Glory have lost 50 games - the equal worst losing record of any of the teams in that period, and perhaps just one of the reasons that the ‘everything is fine’ assertion by the owner doesn’t wash with a number of fans. On the plus side, at least Perth can claim to be better than Newcastle - who also have a shocking goal difference for the past four seasons - sorry, Jets fans. Mind you, they can at least lay claim to an A-League Championship in their history. 

W/D/L for the last four A-League seasons

W/D/L for the last four A-League seasons

Making the finals in the A-League simply isn't a good measure of success - it should actually just be the minimum requirement for any team not in a rebuilding phase (and arguably a good target even if you are). As an A-League club, you have 6 spots out of 10 to aim for. It's better odds than flipping a coin. Yet to make that 3 times out of four is considered a success? Never mind the fact that Perth is entering one of those ‘rebuilding’ phases for about the fourth time in the A-League, without a trophy to be shown for it. 

The question then should be asked, why should this be considered a success - and who sets this target? What drives any key performance indicators, or a long term goal? The answer of course is the person running the club - and Glory have had no shortage of CEOs under Tony Sage. There’s also the board, there to help guide Sage and the CEO in the direction the club takes. Surely they can act to temper and advise Sage of what is and isn’t a good business decision?

As some journalists are beginning to highlight though, the board is hardly in a position to be objective and authoritative with their owner. A simple look at the website of Tony Sage’s company Cape Lambert Resources reads like a rundown of Perth Glory themselves. There are four people on the mining company's board, and three of them also work at Perth Glory in some capacity. Apart from Sage himself, there is Glory board member Ross Levin and Glory CEO Jason Brewer, both non-executive directors at Cape Lambert. The Glory CEO is also a director at two other Sage-chaired business, Global Strategic Metals and Kupang Resources. 

When Tony Sage says that there is no social link between himself and Mr Brewer, and that “he came to us (Glory) through an independent recruitment programme” this says that either Mr Brewer was actually selected based upon Sage’s business connections, or he was given positions on Sage’s boards after being appointed to the Glory CEO role. Either way, based on their shared market interests, I'm not sure how independent this recruitment can remain. The rest of the Glory board are little different - Declan Kelly is a director at Global Strategic Metals alongside Tony Sage, former board member and CEO Paul Kelly was involved with Sage entities FE Limited and Chameleon Mining, which also featured current Glory board member Benny Elias, who in turn joins Brewer and Sage on the board of Kupang Resources. Got all that?

Now you may ask what is wrong with a group of successful businessmen - and if you read their profiles and financial windfalls its hard to argue they are not - coming together to run a football club. The answer of course is nothing, and they are perfectly entitled to do so. But when that club goes through a fairly dry spell, as Glory have done, and churns through coaches and CEOs in the way that it has, questions have to be asked about the directorship and management that is in place. When I interviewed Glory board member Lui Guliani over three years ago for this very site - after yet another lean period for the club - I asked if the club lacked football knowledge at a board level, and he conceded that they had to try and bolster that. All these years down the track, one must ask if that has really happened.

That Jason Brewer has had prior experience with Subiaco AFC - incidentally the only lower league team promoted to the new NPL WA, having previously been in the state's third tier - is not for debate, and I’m sure that can help the club. But considering the relationships that exist between Sage, Brewer, and the vast majority of the board, one must wonder if there is enough independence and accountability among club leadership to be able to set a clear, responsible direction that is separate from an admittedly emotional Mr Sage and what he imparts to the media and fans. If you're on a club board to advise an owner, or you're a CEO who runs the club for them, and you have business interests and directorships thanks to the club owner, does it make you less likely to challenge a poor suggestion he might have, or offer alternative options? In all likelihood, people will have mixed views on that - but surely we all can agree that if you had no links to him outside the club, such questions wouldn't arise in the first place.

Sage’s sound bytes are snappy, and they make good copy. “3 out of the last 4 finals series” sounds pretty successful, but as we’ve seen is actually a bit underwhelming. The comment given to Simon Hill that "It is two or three individuals causing a lot of trouble here in the west" is a complete falsehood - the writer of Gatt’s featured letter consulted 50-odd Glory supporters, the majority voiced support for it, and then he sent it. Heck, a simple look at the numerous Glory Facebook pages, official or not, would reveal more than just a couple of fans disgruntled with Tony Sage - although he personally probably dismisses all these people as being the “faceless bloggers on the internet” he has been heard to complain about at fan meetings, commenting on Perth Now articles, the West website, or here at FourFourTwo.

The simple fact is, the increased media attention on Glory and their ownership is long overdue. If it can drive a greater sense of accountability at the club, or even change at the highest level, then it can only be a good thing. It is certain that not all people want Sage gone from Glory - a recent article from The Roar voiced support for Sage, although it would probably look better coming from someone who didn’t work for a Perth-based mining broker. But it is certain that Glory fans are demanding more from their board, especially after many of them bought memberships based on a long term plan that the club is desperately having to re-sell after the Edwards sacking and the late season signings of players from overseas that don’t fit a prior youth focus.

It would be hard to question Tony Sage’s success as a businessman, and it’s also difficult to question his passion for the club, especially if you saw him in the wee hours of the morning after the Brisbane grand final. But given his very public outbursts, the club’s handling of various off-field dramas, and Glory's fairly underwhelming overall record on the pitch, it is entirely appropriate to question whether the right decisions are being made at the club, and if the right individuals are being held accountable. Are the right people, with the right knowledge, asking the right questions at the club? Glory fans aren’t convinced, and the media now shows signs of wanting to find out. Some would say it’s been a while coming - but better late than never.