The bitter A-League expansion turf war over the Illawarra region has escalated after the Wollongong Wolves pledged their support for Canberra’s A-League bid on Friday.
The Wolves have signed an agreement which will see the Canberra entity play one match per season in the A-League should they gain entry into the competition.
It comes less than a month after Wollongong were eliminated from the expansion process. The club still holds aspirations of joining as a standalone team in the future, but opted to ally themselves with Canberra rather than linking with rivals Southern Expansion.
Southern Expansion had hoped to form a healthy relationship with the Wolves and had engaged in conversations with the club. But the Wolves’ decision to snub Southern comes as no surprise. The club has long opposed the idea of a team which would represent Sutherland, St George and the Illawarra regions.
There are fears that if Southern were to gain entry into the A-League it prove to a knockout blow to the Wolves’ chances of one day returning to the national stage.
They believe their alliance with Canberra won’t impact their ability to take a spot in the A-League at a later date.
“We want to get to a point where we are in a position to get in the A-League as a standalone,” Wolves spokesperson Luke Wilkshire said.
“We think this is a great opportunity to help us with that and to be able to work together moving forward is a positive not just one region or another but also for football in general. It’s not just working together for players.
“We are looking to work together to get the kind of infrastructure with sporting facilities that they have down there and to get more quality coaches as well, so there is a lot there going forward.”
Canberra bid leader Michael Caggiano was adamant the two clubs would remain separate entities despite the agreement.
"This wasn't about tying their name to our bid so we could win,” he told Fairfax Media. “I don't see this as a race, I'm trying to present what's best for football in this region.
“This partnership is a natural fit, Wollongong is its own city, with its own football identity. We want to work with them not replace them."
Canberra remain in direct competition with Southern Expansion for an A-League spot, with a decision expected in the coming weeks.
Southern hopes to build a large portion of its support base in the Illawarra while developing youth pathways for players in the region. Southern chief executive Chris Gardiner believes the Wolves’ decision doesn’t have the best interests of the region’s youth in mind.
“Last week Wolves were partnering with Sydney FC, now with Canberra. It’s a bit like Collegians partnering with the Raiders rather than the Dragons to develop rugby league talent in the area,” he said.
“We are very determined to make the Illawarra part of its own A-League club. Our partnership with the Football South Coast will bring development resources and pathways directly into the area. And we’ll bring games to WIN Stadium.
“We wish the Wolves the best as an NPL club, but we won’t be distracted in building elite football in the Illawarra as the region’s A-League and W-League club by what they do in their programs with out-of-area alliances.”