FEW fights are as ugly as the one that has engulfed Newcastle City and Suburban Cricket Association over the past few years.
The warring sides can attest to this after a feud lit a raging fire in the boardroom of what used to be Australia's largest adult cricket competition, threatening to destroy it. To put it mildly, the bitter power struggle has been disastrous for the competition.
Team numbers collapsed from 112 to 56 last season, down from 200 teams 16 years ago.
An ongoing Newcastle Herald investigation has revealed allegations of bullying, intimidation, lack of governance, financial mismanagement and no transparency in the 100-year-old competition.
The unfolding revelations over more than a year prompted Cricket NSW to launch two independent investigations into the administration and finances of the NCSCA.
Late last month it was judgement day.
After damning interim findings from both investigations, Cricket NSW suspended the NCSCA board of management and appointed two administrators, including a professional financial controller, to run the problem-plagued association.
Now the four men at the centre of the crisis have broken their silence, revealing the impact of the long-running saga on everything from their mental health to losing their love of the game.
Sacked NCSCA board members Daniel Saunders, Andrew Kelly, Roy Capitao and Grant Hutchings told the Newcastle Herald they were "targeted" for asking too many questions about the association's finances.
It's an allegation suspended NCSCA president Phil Northey strongly denies.
Former register of the NCSCA Mr Saunders, who was part of an emerging power bloc pushing for greater financial and administrative transparency, described clashes with the old powers that had been running the game for years as "bruising".
Mr Saunders' role in the crisis began when he anonymously established a NCSCA Players Page on Facebook in March 2019 to discuss concerns about how the association was being run.
The open page attracted more than 550 members in less than a week and, at times, was highly critical of the management of the association, and started calling for a financial audit of the books.
Mr Saunders said he was not proud of being part of an ugly closed Facebook Messenger chat between four men involved in the Players Page that was later leaked as a 250-page dossier and circulated throughout the competition.
He said his motivation to start the Players Page and stand for an executive position in 2019 was to improve the competition.
"There were so many disgruntled people, we knew there had to be change," he said.
"It was a big risk taking on the association when the people in power were making all the decisions, but I'm happy the outcome is for the betterment of cricket in Newcastle."
After the NCSCA flexed its judiciary muscles and banned Mr Saunders from the board citing the leaked Facebook Messenger chat, he dug in.
"A lot of people labelled us troublemakers and we copped a lot of flak, but we knew things weren't right and that is what the independent investigations have confirmed," he said.
"I'm very happy to be vindicated. I don't believe there was anything fair about the processes and how things were run.
"That had to change for the sake of the game."
The four men had their controversial playing suspensions and boardroom bans ruled invalid on appeal.
A specially convened Newcastle Cricket Zone review committee found the men were inappropriately charged by the NCSCA for alleged administrative deeds under the competition rule book.
It also found the NCSCA judiciary did not have the power to suspend board members, the men were not provided with all the evidence against them and were asked to prove why they were "not guilty of the charges".
Cricket NSW chief executive Lee Germon said the suspensions were examined as part of an investigation into the administration of the NCSCA that was carried out by former NSW police assistant commissioner Peter Parsons.
"The more we looked at it, the more concerned we were about the process," Mr Germon said.
"The penalties didn't seem to match the alleged crimes of these people."
Several of the men pointed out the "stark comparison" between the five-year ban handed to Mr Kelly, who was secretary of the NCSCA at the time, for trying to access the association's Bunnings account and the 12-month bans Australian Test stars Steve Smith and David Warner received for ball tampering in 2018.
Mr Saunders said he believed the men were "rubbed out" because they wanted more transparency.
"We ran for office because there was a group of us who could see that things needed to be done differently and some people didn't like that," he said.
"The ultimate goal for the four of us was to improve cricket in Newcastle and I believe that is where we are now headed.
"It's been extremely stressful and not all of us are still playing anymore which is a real shame, but the C&S needed a clean slate and hopefully now the new administrators can grow social cricket."
After almost 30 years in the NCSCA, Mr Hutchings said the "toxic debacle" destroyed his passion for playing.
His story, like so many others, is of a young, enthusiastic cricket lover who joined the NCSCA as a kid and went on to make lifelong friendships playing every weekend.
"The whole mess had a huge impact, it was extremely stressful there for a long time," he said.
"My mental health was impacted by something that was meant to be fun, it was just out of control."
Putting family first, he decided to take a step back from cricket.
"I still love the game, but it destroyed my love of playing because the competition just wasn't how it was meant to be. It got to a point where it had nothing to do with fair play," he said.
"My wife just couldn't believe the level it got to and I had to bow out."
Fellow former board member Roy Capitao told the Newcastle Herald a "disturbing pattern" developed in the NCSCA.
"If anyone spoke up they got rubbed out," he said. "There were attempts to discredit me to my employer, it was at that level and we are talking about a social game."
Mr Capitao said he was branded as the "bad boy" of Newcastle cricket in an attempt to negate what he was trying to do.
"All I can say is Cricket NSW does not go and spend all that money on a big investigation and step in and take control for no reason," he said.
"For a long time a lot of people didn't like what we had to say, but I'm just glad there is now a chance for some real improvement."
Mr Kelly, who was not involved in the Facebook Messenger chat, said if the NCSCA had agreed to test a vote of no-confidence in the board when members called for it, Cricket NSW would not have been forced to act.
He was banned from any participation in the game for five years, with an additional two-year suspended sentence imposed. He was also removed as secretary of the NCSCA and given a life ban from holding a board position
His penalty, for using a false name when trying to access the association's closed Bunnings account to see where money had been spent, plunged the already crisis-ridden administration into deeper turmoil.
Mr Kelly concedes that he should have used his own name, but said he didn't understand why the expenditure details could not be made available to the board or why his punishment was "so severe".
"There was nothing democratic about any of it," he said. "There was no governance and the association just wouldn't listen to its members.
"We really wanted to try and fix the competition, be part of a positive change. I just hope it comes back to the way it was, there is a lot of history there that shouldn't be lost."
The former Warners Bay Cricket Club president said the controversy allowed him to rediscovered his love of fishing.
Mr Kelly said it was "unfortunate" it took the "public airing" of the crisis for change to happen.
Seeing the wood for the trees in the NCSCA was impossible at times, but he said a few issues were now very clear.
"I have no doubt this outcome will be really good for cricket in Newcastle,' he said.
"We need a competition that is run professionally, with checks and balances and transparency. It might be social cricket, but all sport needs to be run properly."
Mr Germon said Cricket NSW was left with no choice but to act.
He said the more he understood what had taken place in the NCSCA, the more his concern grew.
"This whole thing has not been great for our sport," he said. "The investigation reports are not finalised, but it was sufficiently worrying for us to step in now to steady the ship."
Over the past 18 months, the four NCSCA board members were sacked and handed lengthy playing bans, which were then overturned on appeal. The treasurer resigned.
Amid the fury, hundreds of members from dozens of teams, many who had played for decades, defected to new rival competition Suburban Districts.
The bitter internal free-for all played out in the boardroom, on the field, across social media and at the judiciary.
To top it all off, legal letters went flying after the ugly Facebook Messenger chat was leaked and circulated.
Harassment and bullying allegations have been levelled by both sides and complaints made directly to some members' employers and the police.
The NCSCA's troubles, according to Mr Parsons' interim report, stem from a lack of governance.
After months investigating the association, Mr Parsons found major problems with how the Hunter's largest social cricket competition was being run, amid a backdrop of plummeting team numbers.
In March, Cricket NSW responded to a recommendation from Mr Parsons and appointed Hunter-based accounting firm, Bottrell Accounting Group, to conduct an audit of the competition's books.
The dual investigations found the NCSCA's volunteer board failed to manage the association in accordance with minimum required standards of competence.
It also found that the current NCSCA board was not capable of administering the association to the necessary standard.
According to the investigations, on several occasions, the board failed to observe the requirements of its own constitution, including the implementation and administration of basic financial controls and practices.
Minimal receipts and records have been kept by the association for more than a decade.
Further, the Parsons' investigation found significant personal differences between board members had disrupted the smooth running of the competition and contributed to a decline in team numbers.
NCSCA bank and petty cash statements obtained by the Newcastle Herald, reveal thousands spent at Bunnings, Super Cheap Auto, Ezimetal and food outlets including McDonalds, KFC, 7-Eleven, cafes, Club Macquarie, BWS, Coles, Woolworths and Subway.
Despite the fact that the NCSCA's constitution requires an annual financial audit, one had not been done for more than a decade.
Mr Northey said the not-for-profit organisation that was mainly funded by members' fees had done nothing wrong.
He said all of the spending was legitimate and because the association was considered by NSW Fair Trading as "Tier 2", it did not require financial statements to be audited.
Mounting member pressure saw an audit carried out in late 2019 and a raft of changes to the association's financial accountability were introduced as a result.
"While there have been no funds unaccounted for, there are a number of long-standing practices approved by previous boards concerning accounting procedures, reimbursements, honorariums and meal/fuel allowances that need to be change," Mr Northey wrote to members at the time.
"The current board is committed to ensuring we meet current standards and the expectations of our members."
Mr Germon stressed there were no allegations of dishonesty made against any individual.
But he said Cricket NSW could not standby and let the situation continue to spiral out of control.
"We tried to resolve this through local relationships, but they were broken down as well," he said.
"There was a lot of infighting and relationships not working."
Mr Northey signalled Cricket NSW's move to seize control could be an accelerator for further dispute, as the suspended board considers legal action.
He said the board had given countless volunteer hours to the good of the competition and the game.
"We will not go quietly," he said.
"We have complied with everything they have asked."
Mr Germon said he was hopeful that after a year under administrators Sharyn Beck and Matthew Anderson, of Botterell, the competition would be handed back to the members.
He said processes would be introduced by the administrators this season to set the association up for the future and he wanted the NCSCA to survive "another 100 years".
Mr Northey said the "whole mess" could be traced to a handful of disgruntled people and the NCSCA Players Page on Facebook.
He said the suspended board would fight tooth and nail to stay on, but he declined to reveal how any legal action would be funded.
"Legal action would have to be a decision of the members, they would have to call a meeting," he said.
"We're just in limbo at the moment. This has been going on for years and it's far from over."
While Mr Northey agreed tensions had simmered for years over on- and off-field incidents between rival players and factions, he did not believe Cricket NSW needed to take control.
"We still have not even been spoken to," he said.
"The whole thing is completely ridiculous. We want to put this all behind us and get on with running the competition."
The only thing that appears to have saved the NCSCA throughout the turmoil is die-hard clubs like the NTO Googlies.
Established by a group of Newcastle tax office workers in the 1980s, the club is "dyed-in-the wool C&S".
President Graham Hill said his members loved playing in the NCSCA and had no intention of switching competitions.
The single-team club, that has up to 40 members, calls Lambton's Harry Edwards Oval home and drinks at The Northumberland Hotel after games.
Mr Hill, who has played more than 400 games in the NCSCA, said the "relaxed, pub cricket" feel of the competition was exactly what his members enjoyed.
"We don't want too many rules and restrictions, we just want to get together with our mates and play cricket," he said.
"There is a real social atmosphere about the C&S, we don't want to be affiliated with anyone, we just want to be able to run our own race and have some fun."
Mr Hill said the NTO Googlies, also known as The Googs, had no opinion on the turmoil that had engulfed the competition.
He said the only impact of the saga was the large drop in Newcastle-based team numbers meant further travel for games.
"All of a sudden travel has become an issue for us," he said.
"The reality is the whole thing hasn't really affected us directly, but we would prefer to play as local as possible.
"The C&S is the thing that has brought us all together. It suits us to a tee and we don't want it to change."
'Smokin' Joe Drzyzga, a former district cricketer with University, is the oldest member of The Googs at 72 and plays in the team with his son Ben, who he described as "more of a star".
"It's like a men's shed in the outdoors," Mr Drzyzga said. "We love the simplicity of it and the mateship it brings. It means a lot to us."
Teammate Jamie 'Lemon Blossom' Miller has played for The Googs since 1992.
"I was one of the first non-tax office guys to play," he said. "We just love playing cricket and if anything happens to the C&S we would lose cricket.
"The team is almost like a family, it's a close-knit club and it would be a huge loss to us if anything changed."
The administrators will hold an annual general meeting later this month.
Mr Germon said he did not expect any major changes in the competition, unless they were requested by members.
The competition is scheduled to start on Saturday, October 9.
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