Early last Sunday, just as they always do, a gang of life-long Ireland fans gathered in Section 114 of the South Stand in Lansdowne Road. It’s an area home to You Boys in Green, a supporters’ group that have gathered money to bring colour back to games in the form of flags and banners and who’ve tried to return some of the old atmosphere to the new stadium in terms of singing and noise. But they’re also a group that have become a microcosm of the frustration with and attitude of the FAI.
Upon their arrival, they were searched with one fan having his flag removed despite conforming to regulations. The owner was told it “hadn’t been registered”, a process that was never a requirement before and was never outlined before the game with England. Another had two stewards and an official in a suit stand in front of his seat during the interval and, when asking the issue, was informed it was to make sure no anti-John Delaney material was on show. Elsewhere, when such banners were produced peacefully in the second half, security tried and to remove them and, when unsuccessful, they huddled around the offending parties for the remainder of the game.
Later in the day, the group contacted FAI security officer Joe McGlew with grievances over what had happened. After all, they’d been careful to ensure they broke no rules and McGlew responded that unless a flag was obstructive or covering a sponsor there shouldn’t have been a problem and that those that confronted the supporters must have been misinformed. But by who? And why exactly?
“John Delaney calls us the best fans in the world yet we’ve no doubt it’s him with the problem,” says Phelim Warren of You Boys in Green. “He also says he’s no problem with peaceful protests yet this is what happens. It’s stopping people going. More and more season ticket holders are not renewing because it’s become joyless; there’s bullying and intimidation. Maybe they want patrons, not fans.”
The strained relations started long before, with the first warning shots as far back as October of 2008. And they were plenty loud. After convincing from YBIG, the FAI agreed to throw a testimonial dinner for Dave Langan. A former international who was injured in the 1982 win over France, his body was broken and he fell on very hard times. A drinks reception kicked off the night, with those present suggesting a conservative estimate for the booze was €10,000. But only later did it emerge that the FAI deducted this from Langan’s cut. It got worse, as recounted in Langan’s autobiography. With the association agreeing to pay the rest in tranches, none were on time. His sister had to beg and it was only when Langan himself threatened to go to the media that Delaney intervened.
Four years later and Warren and others were in Poland when they saw the CEO first hand but he was in no state to be confronted about what had happened and in no state for the head of a national football association at a major football event. “I don’t use the word paralytic lightly,” adds Warren. Then came the Scotland ticket debacle, one the supporters’ group protested over at the USA friendly. Another member, Kevin McDaid, describes “man-handling that took place that night. We were told later that Gardaí and stewards were afraid of water protests. A joke of an excuse.”
Undeterred, McDaid was among those that looked for answers over the initial ticketing issue and he attended a meeting at which neither John Delaney nor the Deputy CEO Sarah O’Shea were present. Instead McGlew, communications director Peter Sherrard and marketing director Max Hamilton were given proof of multiple people with 100 per cent home-and-away ticket records missing out, while it was shown clearly how the FAI’s ticketing system had failed miserably. YBIG left that night agreeing to issue a joint statement although the FAI later said they weren’t in a position to. Soon after Delaney came out baselessly swinging at Scotland instead but despite future stakeholder meetings being agreed on, none were held. Requests for information from the group have since been ignored with regular letters to the CEO and all of the 70-plus on the FAI Council going without reply.
After a decade of Delaney, for some this is now the reality of Irish football.
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Speak with those who work or have worked under John Delaney and they laugh at the idea that he’s a man of the people. “He’s not popular amongst staff because he’s arrogant to the point of hilarity,” says one. “In our office or canteen, you won’t see him, he doesn’t mix. Instead, almost by the hour, someone will be summoned to go to him to be addressed.” It shows a respect similar to a children’s television presenter talking to a glove puppet. But far more telling is that the person above and many more contacted all asked for anonymity and therein lies a strong sign of an uncomfortable culture in a behind-closed-doors organisation.
But speak to those same people and they’ll defend his ability. “He’s a very good administrator,” says another. “It’s the human side that clouds people’s judgment. In terms of John’s persona, he’s very much his own man, there’s no coaching him and that’s part of the problem and overshadows his ability. But even considering that, he’s very secure politically. Some ask is there a chance he’s under pressure because of that image taking a battering. Of course not, sure the board are all his people.”
It was December 2004 when he took over the running of Irish football, a move that became permanent three months later. At the time he was seen as a quiet and competent man that could work behind the scenes to transform an archaic and catastrophic institution. Yet while he did transform it, it wasn’t softly, softly. Since then, the problem has been personal and professional becoming one. In that sense he’s the Sinead O’Connor of football administration, decent at his day-job but his actions away from that make it hard to be looked at in isolation. But just try for a second.
Before his taking charge, the FAI had a revenue of around €7m and a couple of dozen staff while the nation had a premier soccer competition with issues that the national association regularly got the blame for when they didn’t actually have control. Yet the early years were good. Under his stewardship revenue reached around €50m by 2008 and 120 staff were on board, while the League of Ireland was integrated into the association and went from a position where some clubs were spending 100 per cent of income just on wages and all clubs combined were losing €7.5m a year to a situation where it was more-or-less break-even and sustainable.
“But if your ego grows that much on the way up, you fall so much faster,” says one Irish football source we spoke to.
It’s very true for while Lansdowne Road’s rebuild should have been the crown placed on the head, it’s instead pulled off the trousers. In the accounts for 2013, the last set seen, the association debt stood at a towering €50m, income was down to €36m which represented a 19 per cent drop over a two-year period, and the idea of being back in black by 2020 had faltered badly. If Delaney is to take credit for the rise from the ashes that coincided with the boom, then he can’t put a return towards cinders solely down to the bust.
“But much of the good he’s done remains,” says an employee. “The technical department didn’t exist before him, the emerging talent programme, regional development officers, they are all down to him. He gets abuse from the League of Ireland but that’s unfair. Delaney brought in Pádraig Smith and if he hadn’t introduced the salary-cost protocol just before the crash, many clubs would have gone with it because they were acting like financial head-cases.”
And while some defend his reforms in senior soccer, others defend his lack of reforms at all-levels of soccer. “Irish football is a bit like Game of Thrones,” says one figure closely involved. “Not just the day-to-day running but the entire structure. So many families vying for power that genuinely hate each other. Junior football, League of Ireland, schoolboy. And within schoolboy there are endless divisions and they can’t stand each other either. Delaney may be the head politician, but there are endless politicians all the way down and each see their patch as importantly as he sees his. You could have a lad elected to the corner-flag committee somewhere at 25, and he’ll hold that corner flag until he dies, guarding it with his life. How do you go about tackling that? It’s impossible.”
Such issues meant that in 2010, after being appointed International Performance Director – a role Delaney described as amongst the most significant moves in the history of Irish soccer – Wim Koevermans went to a meeting of the Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland to discuss the recommendations from an underage review. Yet when a person noted, “They’re the kind of the things the Spanish and Germans have been doing for years,” a senior SFAI figure retorted, “What the f**k would they know about Irish football?” Koevermans ended up quitting. Two years prior to that when the chief executive gave a clear mandate to introduce a pyramid structure within Irish soccer, the first comment at the in-camera meeting was, “Why bother? It’s a political nightmare”.
“So what the FAI really needs is someone to go in and tear it all down, start again at year zero,” says a former association worker. “They need to throw everyone out but they’d be assassinated within a day or two. But Delaney didn’t do that as he’s a politician.” Worse still he’s an Irish politician. Worse again he’s an Irish politician operating in a system that came about via Irish history. Little wonder writer Declan Lynch superbly described it as “the dysfunctional football association that other dysfunctional football associations regard as the galacticos”.
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Ten days ago, when it emerged John Delaney accepted €5m from Fifa, it showed a huge hypocrisy. Ever since Sepp Blatter resigned, he’d been telling everyone that he was the renegade that refused to bow, but there were no tales told while Blatter was still in power and, far worse, Delaney made the FAI one of the most complicit with the way Fifa went about their business and one of the biggest beneficiaries of their beyond-shady methods. However while it was the statement move in terms of a culture of little FAI transparency, it was also just the latest move in such subversive ways. Indeed just go to an AGM and you’ll realise how little is known and how much is kept hidden– at the last one Delaney appeared 58 times in a promotional video while pressing questions from the floor were refused.
Recently an article by former Cork City chairman John O’Sullivan on the42.com gave an insight into frustration felt by just one stakeholder, the one Delaney referred to as “a problem child” last year and whose champions receive €100,000 a year while he remains on €360,000. When O’Sullivan asked an FAI-appointed facilitator to see league accounts he was initially told it shouldn’t be a problem. A week on and that facilitator returned with the news, ‘They’re fine’. “This body [National League Executive Committee] which makes all decisions regarding our domestic league and its finances simply does not report back to the clubs. Clubs do not have the foggiest idea what goes on in those meetings.”
But it’s not just those that fall under the FAI umbrella that have been baffled. In fact a handful of years ago, Delaney was part of an FAI sit down with the editor of a national newspaper, frustrated at what was described as inaccurate reporting. No evidence was shown to support this but what was hinted at was access if the soccer correspondent was nudged aside. It showed Delaney’s disdain for a media he tries so badly to charm with mockumentaries like “John the Baptist”. Of course that’s the showbiz sector he courts while complaining about such celebrity-orientated attention, but he won’t talk to sports media ever since Dion Fanning asked real questions.
Just imagine Phillip Browne of the IRFU or Páraic Duffy acting in such a fashion while guiding rather than ruling over our other major sports. And that’s before we get to the rebel songs and botched statements of defence from a man that holds a position that entails high diplomacy. What makes the bully-boy effort more maddening is that Delaney won’t bully where needed and where his job demands.
It’s why our lack-of-a-system isn’t responsible for any of our best as Seamus Coleman progressed outside it while James McCarthy, James McClean, Aiden McGeady and Darron Gibson progressed outside our jurisdiction. It’s why across the 11 European Under-17 Championships under his watch we’ve made the finals just twice. It’s why in seven European Under-21 qualifying campaigns we’ve won 11 of 45 games. It’s why the senior team have never beaten anything approaching a cruiserweight in a competitive game while Delaney’s been about. It’s why Fifa ranks us 60th in the world behind Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. It’s why fewer and fewer Irish players are going to England and why fewer and fewer English scouts are coming to Ireland. It’s why one widely respected European official said he’d “never seen a football structure as crazy”. It’s why a Uefa analyst, when asked to survey Ireland in the context of the continent, said we’re “not keeping up” and “what matters at the moment is there are better players coming from so many more countries than Ireland. That must be tackled”.
But by the FAI? While Delaney plays the power game? We all know what needs to be done for the CEO to redeem himself, but he’s never given an impression he’s the person to do it. One university study indicated that, between the crucial formative ages of six and 16, central European players get an average of 14 times more touches than those from Ireland. A lack of playing time has led to a huge drop-off by 11. These same players don’t have enough coaches of a high enough standard with 10-times more trainers per player in elite countries. Ireland’s top coaches have said the emerging talent programme starts too late. The likes of Uruguay and Belgium, never mind Spain and Germany, have shown a way forward that we’ve ignored. And all the while we’re stuck with the same old stubbornness as the SFAI rejected 44 of the 51 guidelines in that 2009 underage review, which remains untouched.
Perhaps one story sums up Delaney’s lack of success in tackling a problem that’s been staring straight at him across his tenure. In January 2013, the coaches of the under-15 Irish team staged seminars in Dublin and Limerick to educate Kennedy Cup managers. The SFAI, however, were not initially consulted and as a result, shortly afterwards, sent a memo to their 32 leagues to disregard the seminars. It showed power is more important in Irish soccer than players.
After a decade of Delaney, this is still the reality of Irish football. To be a success he needed to be internally unpopular for reasons of sweeping change; instead he’s externally unpopular for endless blunders allied to no great change at all.
Abridged version in Sunday Business Post
14 June, 2015