Any critique of David Gallop’s seven-year tenure as Football Federation Australia (FFA) chief executive should contain the type of fault-deflecting caveat that might be included in an assessment of the Chernobyl first responders.
The cracks in the structure had been exposed, the emergency protocols were ignored, the roof of the core reactor had blown off and Australian football had gone into full meltdown many times before Gallop put on the hazmat suit.
Throughout its local history the game has been so radioactive it could play night fixtures without lights.
But upon Gallop’s arrival, the latest toxic fumes that were to engulf the FFA — and the A-League particularly — were disguised by a period of relative growth and prosperity that might be called the Wanderers Era.
This dizzying time peaked in 2013 when the belated inclusion of the Western Sydney Wanderers and their boisterous fans unleashed the full possibilities of a competition that had shown encouraging signs of growth and seemed to provide a template for what the A-League would become.
Coincidentally, I attended a Wanderers match at the old Parramatta Stadium with Gallop early that year. The grey-haired bespectacled chief executive was greeted like a rap star by Wanderers fans — and even the coaches and players — almost pitifully grateful such a well-known figure had accepted Frank Lowy’s seven-figure invitation to run the sport.
Gallop’s final years as NRL chief executive included being manhandled by disgruntled Manly and Melbourne supporters and enduring the vitriol of Sea Eagles full-back Brett Stewart during a grand final presentation.
Being asked to pose for photos with fans and glad-handing Alessandro Del Piero was a pleasant change indeed.
Alas, Married At First Sight has produced longer honeymoons than the one Gallop enjoyed with football fans. Even that night the writing was on the now-demolished Parramatta Stadium walls.
In the flimsy corporate box, Lowy put an arm around his prized new chief executive. But as Lowy’s influence remained undiluted this would soon seem more the act of a seasoned ventriloquist than of an empowering chairman — even more so when Steven Lowy took his father’s place in the family football business.
Meanwhile, the same Wanderers fans who hailed Gallop would later damn him for his allegedly heavy-handed crackdown on their “active” support.
This was just one instance where Gallop’s FFA seemed clueless about how to balance the legitimate expressions of passion that had given the A-League its greatest point of difference with the need to control the antisocial activities of a fringe group of supporters.
But rather than Gallop’s lack of football intuition, it is the game’s failure to cash-in on the commercial opportunities created by the vibrant early seasons of the A-League that has been most damning during his reign.
Again, it must be remembered Australian football had already reached the “shooting radioactive dogs in the exclusion zone” stage on the Chernobyl timeline when Gallop arrived.
Just one example: the pay-TV deal that at the same time funded the A-League and restricted its visibility was well established and the small window in which free-to-air TV might have had a meaningful interest in the rights was never opened.
Gallop guilty of inactivity at FFA
Gallop also inherited the job in the immediate aftermath of the failed 2022 World Cup bid, the wretched enterprise that drained the game of funds, burnt bridges with the Federal Government and distracted the FFA from bolstering the A-League.
But for all that, it is difficult to consider Gallop anything other than the wrong man at the wrong time given the gradual descent of the domestic competition, particularly over the past few seasons, and also the enduring failure to translate a massive participation base into broader, revenue-generating support.
When Gallop stood down as NRL chief executive in mid-2012 the chairman of the new ARL Commission, John Grant, described him as “reactive”, a description that understandably stung.
In a game beset by behavioural problems, dominated by the self-serving club warlords and unduly influenced by the agenda-pushing crisis merchants of the Sydney media, what was Gallop to do but react to one catastrophe after another?
Gallop’s disillusionment at his replacement by the upmarket English banker David “Call Me Dave” Smith endured even after he joined the FFA on a larger salary. After playing fireman during the worst times of the club-controlled NRL, Gallop felt he was never given the clean air to innovate and change that the ARL Commission might have provided.
Yet when handed a second chance to shape a major Australian football code, “inactive” seems a more suitable description of Gallop’s tenure. Although it is difficult to know if this apparent torpor was because, as critics insisted, Gallop did not have a “feeling for the game”, or whether he was hog-tied by Lowy’s dominance as well as the game’s intractable internal politics and unwieldy structure.
In the media release announcing Gallop’s departure he cited the introduction of the FFA Cup, the Asian Cup victory, consistent World Cup participation, a “record six years media rights deal with Fox Sports” and increases in participation among his achievements.
Yet this seems more like a list of things that happened during Gallop’s seven years rather than a list of accomplishments he planned, inspired or leveraged to create lasting change.
The lingering memory will be of the messy departure of Matildas coach Alen Stajcic and the looming takeover of the A-League by the more ambitious club bosses.
So after seven years you can’t thank Gallop for cleaning up Australian football’s radioactive waste, but nor can you blame him for the three-eyed fish in the cooling pond.