Former NSW Premier Morris Iemma has emerged as a powerful ally in Canberra's bid for an A-League licence, following Tuesday's announcement by Mike Charlesworth that his Central Coast Mariners were up for sale.
Iemma, a Football NSW board member and former chairman of Southern Expansion's failed bid for a licence, has long considered the ACT a viable location for an A-League club, and believes the time has come for the capital to take its place in the national competition.
Mariners owner Charlesworth announced on Tuesday he was set to end a seven-year stint as the Central Coast's majority owner, although chief executive Shaun Mielekamp was quick to reject suggestions the club would be available for just $4 million.
Mielekamp is desperate to keep the club on the Central Coast, but was unable to rule out relocating the team should that possibility be met with Football Federation Australia approval.
Canberra had arguably the strongest bid to join an expanding A League in 2018, but was overlooked for the second time in less than a decade.
Iemma's Southern Expansion bid, supported by former Socceroo Craig Foster and encompassing Wollongong, St George and Sutherland, was also overlooked in favour of Macarthur FC which is set to join the competition next season.
And while the company backing Southern Expansion abandoned its A-League plans and invested in Asian football after their rebuke, Canberra has remained waiting in the wings for its next opportunity.
"If the FFA is minded to allow relocation of the licence, relocating it to the ACT would strengthen the A League and strengthen football," Iemma said.
"The ACT is going to grow substantially over the next few decades, and has much greater population catchment than the Central Coast team. Their growth plan for the next two decades will see it go to a population of 600 and 800 thousand.
"If you then include some of the regions surrounding it, other parts of southern NSW, you're starting to get into a very very strong population base that could quite easily sustain an elite football club.
"The ACT and Canberra have got a very proud history and great tradition in football and in many respects for Canberra, participating in the A League a lot of Canberrans would say a return to where we rightfully belong.
"It's a proud tradition, strong history, great culture which has produced some fabulous footballers, and lots of talent."
Charlesworth's decision to sell the Mariners coincides with the ACT government's recent feasibility study on building a new stadium in Canberra, a project Chief Minister Andrew Barr has previously said would require an A-League team to ensure year-round use.
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One option is a narrow footprint, steep-seated construction on the site of the Civic Pool which would require significant roadworks to make it fit.
The other possibility is at Exhibition Park, a site with much more room although Barr said on Wednesday that an announcement on where to build a new stadium was still a long way off, given the 1500-person attendance cap in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not since the collapse of the Canberra Cosmos in 2001 has the ACT boasted a national men's football team.
Iemma expected an A-League team in Canberra would bring out some of the country's most parochial fans.
"They're not fair-weather supporters in Canberra, they will turn up and they will support their sporting teams through thick and thin," Iemma said.
"The Raiders have proved that, so too have the Brumbies. When the Brumbies were competing for Super Rugby they were packing the stadium out.
"The Raiders, even when they've not been up competing and battling for finals, the crowds have still held up and they've had outstanding crowds when the Raiders have been doing well.
"When the AFL has had matches in Canberra they've drawn very well, when cricket has been there at Manuka they've drawn exceptionally well. We've had a Test match, we've had first-class cricket, attendances have been good. Sport plays a significant role in the lives of Canberrans."