Sydney businessman Abdul Helou has claimed he is close to finalising the purchase of the Central Coast Mariners and is promising to “shake-up” the A-League once his takeover is complete.
Helou, an Australian who is believed to own 32% of Spanish club Rayo Vallecano, claims he is expected to finish the deal for the Mariners in the next six weeks. The technology businessman, investor and property developer wants to lift the Gosford club out of the doldrums and help revitalise the competition.
“We’re going through the final stages with legal and we’re waiting on the FFA final approval before we can announce in February,” he told SBS The World Game.
“In terms of the transition monies have been put down, deposits have been made, various monies have been invested upfront in terms of the property-stuff. Three-quarters of the deal is property. There’s definitely a lot happening.
“Football in Australia does require someone to come and shake it up. Everyone that currently owns a club is old-school and they’ve been entrenched in the football business for a long time.
“So when you are someone coming in from the outside world with plans to – ‘f**k s*it up’, ruffle some feathers, get some player engagement happening – it’s not hard to do. Especially when we’ve bought the worst house in the best street.
“The other owners are currently comfortable where they are. The Wanderers, Melbourne City, Melbourne Victory – they’re all comfortable where they need to be. They’re all in the top five and that’s what they want.
“But when you’ve got an underdog club coming in I think that will shake up and start to make, and force people to change. Force people out of their comfort zones. And people are either going to jump on the bandwagon or they’re going to sit and protest.
“Now the ones that are going to sit and protest, fans are going to pick up on that and they’ll either force them to change or they’ll change allegiance. It’s not hard to change the ranking from last.
“A few good players, change the management within the first couple of years and you could see yourselves in the top five. Ultimately, with the connections that I have if I bring in, say, five players from Spain from a tier two perspective then they’re all going to run rings around our current A-League players because the football in Europe is very, very different.
“The hustle is different. So when you bring in fresh blood that’s just landed in a tier two level they’re miles ahead of our current players in this country.”
However, the Mariners have hit back at Mr Helou's claims, saying "while the Mariners welcome all genuine investors, the club can confirm that no potential investors have progressed to the due diligence stage with Football Australia and this includes Mr. Helou."
In addition, a Football Australia spokesperson said: “The sale of any A-League and/or W-League licence is a matter for club owners. Football Australia’s role is to ratify any majority sale, and at this point we have had no such request regarding Central Coast Mariners. Any change of ownership also requires a rigorous due diligence process.”
The Mariners won the grand final in 2013 and have won two premierships in their 15-year history, but last made the finals in 2014. Englishman Mike Charlesworth took over the majority ownership of the club seven years ago and Central Coast has finished with the wooden spoon four times in the past five seasons.
While the club has since refuted his ownership bid, Mr Helou insists he had plans to invest in the Mariners if he were to win the license, with a focus on the playing squad and in the front office, in a bid to “re-energise” the struggling outfit.
“It’s no secret, Mike Charlesworth has been using the FFA contribution year-on-year to run the business and buy players,” he said.
“Year-on-year he probably receives a million, a million and a half, maybe two million. He’d run the business and he’d run the football, so every time he’s looking for money he’s using that fund.
“Whereas how I plan to run the club is to use the contribution only for the football club, but the business is funded through other initiatives. So, in the beginning, I’m tipping in enough money in the company account for the football club to survive on its own two feet for the first two years.
“Obviously with some new hires, additions, plus a revamp of the sales, marketing and sponsorship, plus community engagement. With a probably a Mariners retail front where we can re-energise the business itself. So instead of the business relying solely on myself after the two-year stint, or FFA contribution, it’s generating its own money.
“Obviously through my contacts in this country and overseas I’d be able to bring on some big-name sponsors and that would help. If we’re going to take over the stadium, management rights and operational rights and branding rights we’d be able to bring on a big-name brand, and that would give the business a boost.
“So there are many initiatives thought of and being put in place. Obviously, we’re not making a lot of changes in the first season as it starts on the 27th of December. I don’t expect to make a lot of changes in the first half of the season.
“Maybe strategically I would put in some new buyers around the second half of the season, purely in the business, but come season 2021-2022 everything will be getting a revamp – players, possibly the coaching staff, and possibly the leadership staff.
“I need to see how it’s running in its current form before I make some serious changes. Obviously, the foundation staff are crucial to the club, so I won't be making changes there. But moving forward I will be adding some new skill-sets that they’ve never had access to.”
Helou says he has always followed football, but his love of the sport was reignited when his eldest son started playing.
“I’ve been in the market for a club in Australia for a while now,” he said.
“I have one in Spain and that’s doing OK. The knowledge is there, we know how to run a football business, I’ve been around football my whole life.
“All three of my sons play football. My eldest has toured through Manchester, London, all through Europe – Italy, Spain – so I’ve been to a fair few clubs. All my friends own clubs, so the family that owns Atletico Madrid, I’m really close with them. Football has turned from a hobby into a business.
“The Mariners was just the most appetising [A-League club available]. It was the one that we can strike a deal on, plus the property aspect was very advantageous for me.”
Helou is keen to engage with the Mariners’ fanbase as he seeks to change the clubs fortunes both on and off the pitch. He says the initial feedback from Central Coast supporters has been positive.
“Everyone’s waiting for the move, waiting for us to come in and revamp the morale across the Central Coast,” he said.
“I’ve got some great plans in and around supporter-engagement. What I will be doing are membership initiatives to help re-engage families back into the club. I think the replacement of the current ownership is what everyone’s been yearning for the past couple of years.
“To have a local own and operate the club as opposed to someone who’s sitting at a desk overseas. For whatever it’s worth Mike’s done everything at his capacity, but I think me being a stone’s throw away – a few hours drive – from the actual location helps from a supporter-engagement [view].
“One could only hope for the best, but we do have a lot of initiatives and a lot of plans to input. Once I do come in officially things will change drastically. I mean it’s all about the fans right – without the fans, the club doesn’t survive.
“As I like to say – no money, no honey, right? You need to engage with the fans because ultimately they’re the ones – blood, sweat and tears – that are coming to your games every week.
“They’re the ones chasing the players, they’re the ones that are helping you survive and be the club that you are. It’s not a business without them.”