As the Wolves again fight for their NSW Premier League survival, newly appointed Football South Coast chief executive Ann-Marie Balliana is adamant a future in the A-League is much more than a pipe dream.
During a wide-ranging interview with the Mercury this week, Balliana outlines the strategic plan she will oversee to ensure an A-League future becomes a reality.
The success of the Western Sydney Wanderers and the arrival of Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero has made football the hottest sporting product in Australia.
Balliana is confident the "sleeping giant" in the Illawarra is also waking, with the blueprint for a "home of football" at their west Dapto development site and synthetic pitch at JJ Kelly Park.
After a decade of suffering, Football South Coast is determined to play hardball to ensure a prosperous future and eventual return to the national scene.
"It's not a romantic notion," Balliana says matter-of-factly.
"It comes back to the 'home of football' concept and building a sustainable business model.
"From that we can host state and national tournaments of all levels and further improve our participation rates; there's so much we could do with the infrastructure which we can't do right now.
"Just the artificial turf in itself, the benefits that brings, that will help us generate additional revenue streams which can be put back into football, whether that's [working towards] an A-League team, or whatever mechanism, but that's fundamental to us becoming sustainable."
It's been a wild ride since winning the National Soccer League in 2000 and 2001.
Forced from former home Brandon Park before the development of the University of Wollongong's Innovation Campus, the Wolves endured the Lysaghts Oval non-development disaster, a ground now used by Collegians rugby league club.
The Wolves won the NSW Premier League crown in 2008 and were on the brink of collapse the following year.
Now staying in the top division is vital for the FSC pathway and the financial opportunities that come with it. In the past year, the Wolves have suffered from an $80,000 budgetary shortfall as they struggle to make money while based at John Crehan Park and have required support from FSC.
To put it in perspective, South Coast - the team at the top of the region's football pyramid - operate with a budget of about two-thirds of the financial backing of Illawarra Premier League powerhouse Dapto Dandaloo.
The Wolves have had just one win in the NSW Premier League this year, but it's the club championship that is all- important to their future.
While the promotion and relegation structure with the Premier League Division Two is based on a series of criteria, the team that finishes last is going down as long as there is a team ready to come up.
Several second-tier Sydney clubs have splashed the cash in a bid to make the step up.
Judged on under 18s and 20s, as well as a weighting to first-grade results, South Coast are on 42 points, seven above the Central Coast Mariners Academy and as many behind struggling APIA Leichhardt Tigers.
The Mercury understands Central Coast Academy will not be more likely to stay up because of their direct link to this year's A-League grand final winners.
While the Wolves still have every opportunity to climb the ladder, the sentiment is the club needs to survive this season and next before it has the opportunity to prosper with new facilities and revenue opportunities.
After taking over from present Western Sydney youth league manager Trevor Morgan, coach Richard Lloyd remains one of the Wolves' biggest assets as he develops a positive reputation for the club.
The FSC body has now made a formal submission about state government funding for JJ Kelly Park and the blueprint for West Dapto.
With a W-League team and the expansion of the regional academy, overseen by technical director Glenn Fontana, and Illawarra futsal and corporate leagues also in the planning, Balliana says FSC is on the path to change.
"The government support for us to grow the game, that's the key to support a product where the money will be retained within football. We're probably one of the best organisational structures in NSW - that's come from [Football Federation chief executive] David Gallop; he's seen our model."
With the prospect of WIN Television boss Bruce Gordon - a 25 per cent stakeholder in St George Illawarra - bankrolling an A-League club unlikely, the FFA backing a South Coast entry and a return to WIN Stadium would be the final pieces of the puzzle, which could be a decade or more away.
Eventually the FFA wants the national leagues to develop a B-League out of the state premier leagues and promotion and relegation to and from the A-League anyway, as exclusively revealed in the Mercury in February.
With a background in finance and experience on the Football South Coast board before taking on the chief executive's role after the departure of Bill Kostandas, Balliana admits she has a mandate to oversee the construction of the new major facilities.
"There's 12,000 people playing [in the region], plus another 3000 in the amateur leagues, all jumping up and down about facilities.
"That is a huge population base for our politicians to start listening [to]. The giant is waking and is here now and we want to get things done," she says.
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