Seven years after rescuing Central Coast Mariners from financial oblivion, owner Mike Charlesworth has revealed he’s exiting Gosford, saying it’s time fresh benefactors are found to take the struggling club forward.
Having pumped in millions during a tempestuous tenure which began with an A-League championship, only to quickly go awry, the battle-weary English telecoms millionaire will hand the license back to Football Federation Australia if a majority investor can’t be unearthed, placing the future of the franchise in grave doubt.
After four wooden spoons in five years, and previous unsuccessful attempts to attract serious partners, London-based Charlesworth acknowledged frustrated fans will likely be “happy to see a new direction - and I understand that”.
“We’ve struggled in recent years through a lack of investment, now is the time someone must be found to drive it forward,” added Charlesworth.
The man who first bought into the club as a 30 per cent shareholder a decade ago, said “several factors” had conspired this year to provoke his departure, “especially COVID of course”.
“I’m sure next year we’ll pull through and start to build the A-League again,” he added.
Charlesworth, who faced mounting criticism from fans over running the club on a shoestring budget, was hoping to conclude at least a partial sale before the coronavirus hit.
The pandemic quickly killed off that prospect.
“We were in talks with a couple of clubs in Europe but when the coronavirus came along everything changed,” explained Charlesworth.
“Everyone is suffering from top to bottom but even more so the small to medium-sized clubs.
“The global market has been very hard hit.”
Charlesworth injected $5 million cash to save the club from going under as debts mounted back in 2013, sealing hero-of-the hour status when the Graham Arnold-led Mariners beat Western Sydney Wanderers 2-0 in the grand final a month later.
The sheen lost its lustre thereafter with Charlesworth - a small fish compared to billionaire A-League barracudas like the City Football Group and wealthy Wanderers owner Paul Lederer - found sustaining a high level of investment increasingly onerous.
Charlesworth is open to acquiring a share in a team closer to home in Europe, admitting his remoteness from Australia didn’t help in his oversight of day-to-day operations in Gosford.
“It’s extra hard for me because I’m 12,000 miles away and now I’m locked out of the country,” he added.
“Ideally, we’ll find the right investors and a local chairman who have the best interests of the club at heart.”
Charlesworth has been highly critical of aspects of governance within the game but remains “a believer” that a new independent structure can put professional football back on course and able to compete with the country’s dominant codes.
He at least went out on a high of sorts, watching from the UK as the Mariners beat Melbourne Victory 3-2 last night in their final game of another forgettable season.