FOOTBALL Federation Australia chief Ben Buckley came face to face with the fans last night as they let rip their frustrations at the way the game is being run in the country.
Buckley was the star panelist at the latest Fan Forum organised by Footy Fans Down Under's Lee Sutherland and joined this time by the resources of The World Game who recorded the event for SBS.
He was booed as he walked on stage and immediately came under fire on a series of different fronts, with fans blaming the FFA for focusing on the World Cup bid at the expense of the A-League, the demise of North Queensland Fury, dwindling crowds, and the FFA's high-handed disregard for the fans themselves.
Joining Buckley on stage were TWG's Craig Foster, Adelaide United chairman Greg Griffin, Sydney Morning Herald journalist Seb Hasset, Professional Footballers Australia chief executive Brendan Schwab and ex-Sydney FC striker David Zdrilic.
Earlier the crowd had also been won over by the charms of Socceroos coach Holger Osieck, Brisbane Roar coach Ange Postecoglou and Matildas coach Tom Sermanni.
But it was the showdown with Buckley that fans were most anticipating.
He fielded questions on various topics in the 90 minute grilling but the biggest flashpoint came when the issue of fan relations was brought up.
When angry Cover supporters confronted Buckley over FFA attitudes, they highlighted the difference in dealing with Sydney FC compared to dealing with the FFA.
They revealed the FFA used footage of their giant Sydney FC top in this season's and campaign...yet the FFA banned them from using the same jumper at games.
And on away trips around the country, the FFA shoved them into the corner of stadiums and confronted them with riot police, despite all the plaudits for their passionate displays.
Buckley insisted his AFL background was not to blame for the apparent lack of understanding.
"There's an awful lot of people inside the FFA who football means the world to," he said. "I don't think it's right to say the FFA doesn't understand the passion.
"We do appreciate the Cove. We do understand what they bring to the game. We do acknowledge them. Maybe we don't do it enough.
"There are some things we do from time to time that fans don't agree with. We have to make sure the games are conducted in a family friendly way and that everyone has the opportunity to come along and enjoy the game.
"I'd be very keen to understand the specifics of what you don't feel you're allowed to do during the finals series and take that up with the team."
He added: "I'll be the first to acknowledge the difference in the crowds. The thing that's always struck me is the electricity, the vibrancy of the fans. I totally respect it and where it comes from. We do have some rules and regulations to stop certain elements. We've worked very hard with Melbourne recently to get that balance right.
"The whole essence behind the campaign was to celebrate the contribution fans made. I accept the point that there are times when maybe the guidelines and security is more overzealous than we would like and we are working to get that balance right."
Angry fans demanded to know how, insisting the FFA has never talked to the fans.
Buckley replied: "Well, we do that through the clubs...We are working with the stadium, with the police, with the clubs.
"We are making a very concerted effort to get that balance right. We encourage the dynamics, we encourage the passion, we encourage the volume that comes from the fan groups."
On North Queensland Fury:
"You have to look at the other teams we were putting finance into - we had Brisbane and Adelaide.They are capital cities in their states. The pie is only so big, that's really the truth of the matter. If we had endless resources we would make those decisions differently. We just didn't see the signs that the community was going to come forward with the capital investment that was required and that a very disappointing decision to make."
"We have taken the view that we need to consolidate around 10 teams. We need to make the investment in those 10 clubs for the time being. That does not rule out West Sydney. We are not putting a specific timeframe on it. We will continue to work with the west Sydney region to make sure we are in place when the time is right. It's all about consolidation and getting the existing stucture right and making sure those clubs are financially stable."
On TV rights:
"We have a very good contract at the moment financially, but we expect more because the game expects more, the game deserves more. We want to be in a position where we have a free to air component, a subscription component and mobile internet devices component. We want the best possible coverage with the best possible reach to get to the fans that can't get to the games. And we want a nice juicy financial figure on top of that. We think FTA would benefit the game because it would get to a bigger audience and have a commercial benefit to the clubs. We believe it would cross promote the games that would build the audience on Pay TV as well. We've had those discussions. The trade-off is that if someone pays you a big enough sum for exclusivity can that benefit the game better? Ultimately it's not maximising the financial benefit, it's optimising it...but we can't do that if it means we go backwards."
On the Mirabella Cup:
"We aspire to have a national cup competition as soon as possible. Our timeline is currently starting next year in 2012. We are all excited by it. We all understand it will be a great tool to help us connect down through the various levels of the game. Having said that, we don't want to confuse the cup competition with a whole series of state competitions that include the A-League clubs and that's why the decision was taken. I know there's a lot of people that don't support that but we are all excited about getting the cup competition right from next year on. We don't want to launch the A-League clubs into a number of state competitions that will ultimately confuse the public. I know there are some people in Victoria were disappointed about that but we are only 12 months away.'
On the forum:
"The big issue I take from this is that the fans and the community want to be engaged., They want to be an active part of the game, We have been working on particular strategies on this that but we need to do a lot more of this. We need to come out, commmunicate with you, listen to you, take your feedback on board. We won't always agree but ultimately we have a group of people at the FFA who want to embrace the wider community."
The Fan Forum with Holger Osieck, Ange Postecoglou and Tom Sermanni will be broadcast on The World Game on June 13, and the Ben Buckley, Brendan Schwab and Greg Griffin segment will be shown on June 20.