The FAI has been through a torrid six months with everybody feeling as though they could do the job of running Irish football better than those who were in charge of doing so.
Throughout the weeks and months that followed on from John Delaney’s fall from grace, the structures around football in the Republic of Ireland have been tested to breaking point.
Government, Sport Ireland, the fans, the media and a host of independent reviews have all taken up or been placed in a position of judgement which has been necessary but at times perhaps based on agenda’s other than to ensure football was delivered in the best possible way.
Things need to change and are changing but in a world of social media the reaction time to take stock has been dramatically shortened and the level of public discourse become courser and more personal.
Thrust into the middle of this, Noel Mooney has kept his head down and his counsel to himself. He was brought on board from a senior role in UEFA to serve in the short term as an interim General Manager and to steer the ship on a daily basis while all around the storms of public opinion raged.
UEFA’s financial backing of the FAI during the past six months has steadied what could otherwise have been an undoing of football at every level and even a suspension from the world governing body.
Despite his secondment from Geneva though, Mooney has not had a day to day involvement in the discussions that have taken place between the two. That has been left to FAI President Donal Conway who himself has been the subject of damning criticism for having been a part of the old guard and deciding it was best to stay on for a year to get to calmer waters.
Sport for Business has known Noel Mooney down the years at UEFA and yesterday we had the opportunity to sit with him and talk through some of the professional and the personal issues that have framed his months in office.
He is an affable character, happy to take time to talk with the players preparing for this week’s games in Euro qualifying, with coaches, executives, Mick McCarthy and Ruud Dokter. Once the hands were shaken and the smiles exchanged we swerved around a corner to a quieter spot where we could talk.
He had flown in yesterday morning from Tallin where he had spent the weekend with his partner Kertu-Kirit and their new son Sean who was born there on Wednesday of last week.
So, through all of the brickbats that have been thrown at him since taking over in April, and all of the 18 hour days he has put down throughout the summer, he has also been juggling a personal life that few knew about.
SfB: Some of the coverage and commentary there has been about you has been very personal in nature. How have you coped with that?
NM: Taking on any form of leadership in the public domain is always a test of your own character. I’ve learned a lot about myself over these months. I have maintained a strong focus on what it is that I was brought in to do, to stabilise the Association and then to develop the organisation in many different areas.
Over recent years at UEFA I’ve worked with 55 Federations in Europe on strategy, digital communications, participation and public affairs.
When this unexpected situation arose in my own home country, and when the FAI Board and UEFA discussed the matter, it was something that appealed in terms of what I could do to help.
It wasn’t great from a life perspective with the new baby on the way but we discussed that together and it just felt as though it was the right thing to do. Kertu-Kirit knows my deep love of Ireland and Irish football and we both agreed that I would take on the secondment.
Half way through, and with baby Sean safely delivered, we still feel that to be the case.
Today we are launching Nissan as a new partner of the FAI and in the coming weeks we will have four new Directors coming onto the FAI Board.
We have a new National Women’s team manager to be announced and we have the next meeting of the League of Ireland Strategy group next week.
There’s lots to keep my mind away from personal criticismfrom people who don’t know me at all.
SfB: What is the timeline for decision on the League of Ireland and do they include any of the ideas that have been floated with regard to an island of Ireland League?
NM: We want to have big decisions taken on the future by the end of November. We are open to anything that is beneficial for football in Ireland.
We are under some pressure to make a decision. We want to have whatever new structure emerges through consensus in place by 2021. Next season will be as you are, at the request of the clubs who needed certainty themselves, but there are interesting ways in which the future may go.
Once we have agreed on format, executive, management and structure of the professional game we will then need to have broadcast and sponsorship deals in place by next summer so the clock is ticking.
We have had interesting discussions with a number of different parties, including on the proposals put forward by Kieran Lucid but it is only one of the many different areas of development that we are working on.
There may yet be other proposals which have been floated but they need to become concrete pretty quickly to be considered.
SfB: What else is coming down the tracks?
The new Women’s Football Strategy wil be launched shortly and the Women in Leadership programme that will be part of that is very exciting. We need more femal participation on and off the pitch.
We are also managing the Euro 2020 programme which is coming to Dublin in nine months time. Hopefully that will be with the Republic of Ireland as an important part, but it is coming regardless and there is a huge amount of detailed planning that goes into that.
We have a seperate team working on this, and that is a massive project, the biggest sporting event ever to be staged here.
Last week alone we had a delegation of 80 staff over from the tournament organising committee running through every possible detail around the logistics. They were here most of the week but this is the kind of work that goes on under the radar.
Of course our support of the grassroots game is also incredibly important and has to continue to evolve and increase no matter what is happening at the highest levels of the game or in the politics that surrounds it.
We have 2,000 clubs that we provide service to, and a team of development officers that are up and down to every corner of the country, getting young boys and young girls to fall in love with football.
SfB: Do you feel that a lot of the work that goes on gets overlooked?
NM: We have done a good job in developing at high performance level. The international teams at underage level are performing with huge credit and making it to the final stages of more tournaments than ever before.
That often does get overlooked and the coverage tends to get very personalised. You just have to keep going and doing what you believe is the right thing to do.
SfB: Would you say that you have enjoyed it so far?
It is certainly quite a challenging job in terms of managing so many different workstreams but I can honestly say there isn’t a single moment of the time I’ve been here so far that I haven’t fully enjoyed.
The work I have done at UEFA put me in a position where I felt I could make a very positive difference at a very important time for the FAI. It’s a ‘survive and thrive’ period for the Association.
We need to manage a lot of big issues but also need to keep on developing in areas that are vital for the future.
At the end of the day it is no different to the kind of work that is going on in every country across europe but I enjoy it especially here because I’m Irish and I really like working with Irish people.
SfB: Does that mean that you would consider extending your stay?
I am half way through my six month secondment here and as much as I enjoy it, I am equally looking forward to getting back to my excellent team at UEFA.
They tell me they have been missing me and they are looking forward to me leading our brand new ‘Football Federations of the Future’ project which will be the central programme for developing football across Europe. Over the past few years, I built, my team and I built the hugely successful UEFA GROW programme which revolutionised UEFA’S strategic and systematic growth of the game.
The plan is built and is going through the different processes prior to launch. That will be my top priority to deliver upon my return to UEFA.
SfB: So is that a categorical no?
There is so much going on at the moment that you really don’t have time to think of anything other than today and tomorrow. It’s one step at a time on so many different projects.
My priority for 2019 is to move the FAI forward for the remainder of my secondment.
And more importantly, there’s my family situation as well with our first born child to consider. We have a lovely home and way of life in Geneva and we will be married in December.
We are getting married in December and honestly when I lift my head from what we are doing here, that’s what I’m thinking about.
SfB: How quickly have you been able to build relationships with some of your key partners here?
NM: It has been an interesting time. Like a case study really in sponsorship and how to make sure that partners are being treated in the right way at a time when they are coming under pressure.
In the past week we have unveiled Boots and Nissan as partners and their presence with us is a significant vote of confidence.
For some of our partners, they could have taken an easier option and walked away but they have chosen to stay with us and we won’t forget that. When our back was against the wall in terms of image there were partners who went above and beyond what we might have hoped. It’s easier to back an organisation when it’s qualifying for Finals but it’s harder when things go through inevitable rockier times.
It is crucial we deliver for our partners and we are putting in a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure we do.
Football globally is the sport that everyone wants to be part of and we are making sure that through our communications and our own messaging that people feel the same way about the sport here.
SfB: You’ve been painted as being part of an old guard and not the right man for the job as a result of that. How do you counter those arguments?
NM: You know it’s been a long time. I worked at the FAI as League Marketing Manager over eight years ago and a lot has happened in my life since then.
The reality was that in the depths of recession there was no budget to market the League so there was future for me there at that time.
I had grown up in football and wanted to continue so I went to UEFA and sought out a role there which I felt was good for me and good for them, and through which I have developed in my career and as a person.
As part of my UEFA role, I attend around 15 AGM’s a year. I was sent to Ireland in 2017 when I delivered an address on behalf of UEFA which was siezed on at the time of my secondment to demonstrate a relationship with the organisation.
This speech would be very typical of a UEFA representative addressing an AGM in any of our Member Associations. I have been 13 years in football administration of which the last 8 have been at UEFA so I am away a long time which made it even more surprising to me to be accused of something which was far from the reality.
I’m a positive and optimistic person. I don’t particularly listen to commentary from people who aren’t willing to roll up their sleeves and make a positive contribution.
If an erroneous narrative has been accepted in certain circles, then I am not going to use up energy in forcing that to change.
Some media commetary seemed to be like a policy of scorched earth where anyone who had ever worked at the FAI should never do so again.
What I’ve learned through working with so many different areas of football in so many countries, is of value. I’d rather apply that to making a difference rather than fighting for my own repuation.
At a time when somebody was needed that had the right skillset, I believe it was the right thing to do to take on the challenge.
SfB: So on secondment then what percentage of you has been FAI and what has been UEFA?
NM: 100 per cent FAI while maintaining ongoing key relationships at UEFA and FIFA which benefits Irish football.
The dealings that have been undertaken with regard to financial support and day to day running of the FAI have been through the board. I can help to guide where the conversations should be directed but my job has been to manage the sport on the day to day basis.
With that Cathal Dervan appeared around the corner to whisk Mooney away for photography with Seamus Coleman, Katie McCabe and Mick McCarthy. Then he was heading back to deal with a mountain of emails on subjects as diverse as ticket allocation for Thursday through to high performance measurement, the game at Tallaght and maybe a moment to think of his less than a week old baby over in Estonia.
It’s people that make up what sport is. Hopefully these few words have painted a rounder picture of who Noel Mooney is.
Image Credits: Inpho.ie