In a High Stakes Game for Football We Need a Quieter Government

The media will gather at FAI Headquarters today for what will hopefully be the beginning of the end for a dark, dark year for the sport.

The Board will be present in full, alongside President Donal Conway and qualified accountant and new Executive Lead Paul Cooke. Those two will take the lead on answering questions about the financial accounts for 2018, 2017 and 2016 all of which have been tidied up and made real.

We have been warned they will be shocking. The ‘low ball’ number on the overall debt has been pitched at over €50 million. Our feeling is that it will be closer to €55 million but not as high as some have suggested. In that sense setting a low bar may serve to prepare us for something that is bad but not bad enough to bring the organisation down.

The UEFA lifeline which has kept things going is believed to be around €15 million and will be paid back out of future income but things will need to be repaired structurally in order to bring the debt down.

Anyone who deals in crisis debt management will say that acceptance of a problem is the first step towards solving it.

Delaney

It is now clear that John Delaney as CEO was not in that space of acceptance. His personal settlement and revelations of exactly how much he might have been paid over and above his salary in the years in the spotlight will likely take the main headlines today and through the weekend.

His personal claims that the FAI could be debt-free by 2020, made as recently as 2018 will look delusional by the time the real picture emerges shortly after 12 noon. The narrative of personal excess is the one that will lead in mainstream coverage. As a nation, we love to see the person rather than the organisation called to account.

The numbers will be large and detailed. They will require sober reflection in order to learn from the past and plan for the future.

Those who will be there at Abbottstown today will play a key role in that future. Of even greater importance though will be those who are not there.

The first and most obvious absentee will be Delaney himself. It will be painful reading for him as the actions he will be alleged to have undertaken in failing to control the financial problems are held up to the light.

Former honorary treasurer Eddie Murray, who famously did not know how many bank accounts the Association held will also be absent. He will most likely carry the lions share of the blame for the lack of oversight.


None of the previous Finance Directors who will have perhaps understood the scale of the problem but did not, or were not allowed raise the required noise of an alarm will be there.

Noel Mooney will be back in Switzerland at UEFA Headquarters. Having had him in place as interim CEO to the end of last month gave a critical line of sight to UEFA in terms of how the management of the FAI, one of their hosts for Euro 2020, was being handled internally and at Government level.

It is time though to draw a line and it is those who will impact the future, but who will also not be present today that will perhaps leave the largest gaps in how the FAI gets through this.

John Foley will not be there. The man who on Sunday night was getting ready to step in as a competent, highly regarded, politically astute interim CEO will be sitting at home.

On Monday he said that the lack of support from a key stakeholder meant he could not accept the position. Minister of State Brendan Griffin had a good relationship with John Foley while he was CEO at Athletics Ireland, as did the officials at the Department. It is unlikely they would have opposed him.

Judgement

The key stakeholder then is Minister for Tourism, Transport and Sport Shane Ross who will also be absent from proceedings but who will no doubt be ready to cast judgement to a battery of cameras and microphones.

If he is there it will be as a gatecrasher as it’s unlikely he received an invitation.

Relations between the FAI and the Minister are chillier than the setting for Frozen 2 that is packing the cinemas at the nearby Blanchardstown Centre.

Minister Ross has steered a consistent line that nobody with any connection to the FAI under John Delaney’s tenure should be anywhere near its future set up.

That has been ferociously expressed in relation to Donal Conway who stood up to the criticism on the basis of wanting to have someone in place that could handover in a seemly fashion. As a retired schoolteacher who could hardly ever has expected to have put down a 2019 as he has, he will be only too happy to step away, perhaps as early as the reconvened AGM on December 28th.

In order to do that there will need to be an Independent Chair and three other new independent Directors.

None of them will be there today either. They will have naturally wanted sight of the Kosi Report but were denied that by it being passed over to the Gardaí. They will have wanted full sight of the financial position which you have to imagine those on a shortlist drawn up by recruitment specialists Amrop will have sight of today.

Scorched earth

They will also need to be of unblemished character and perhaps have never even watched a football match while John Delaney was in charge of the FAI to avoid the scorched earth judgement of Minister Shane Ross.

His lack of support for John Foley has seen a good man for the job walk away from it. Government funding for the FAI is less than five per cent of its overall revenue and while we need to have politicians stand up for our institutions to be well run there comes a point where standing up becomes jumping up and down and when that happens good people will continue to walk on by.

UEFA and FIFA take a dim view of government interference in the running of the sport at local level. They will have been calmed by the FAI standing up to Government criticism of Noel Mooney’s appointment but now he has gone we are stepping back into a little more dangerous territory.

Minister Ross wants a fit for purpose FAI. In politics as in business sometimes the way forward involves pragmatism and compromise. Getting the right people into lead that through 2020 will perhaps be better served by a quieter Government in our opinion.

UEFA

UEFA may be in the room in some manner today. if not they will be fully aware not only of what needs to be done in financial terms to steady the ship but they will also be aware of the reaction to who might undertake that.

If they believe the FAI is allowed to remain in control of finding the solution they will continue to provide support and financial backup.

If they feel as though there is overt Government interference, they may decide that withdrawing the FAI from international competition, as has been done in the past with Bosnia who we may yet face in a win or go home playoff final is a better way to maintain football’s independence at a global level.

Today will see some big numbers revealed as the hole out of which the FAI must climb. It’s a high stakes game and we need the right people at the table. They need to be confident they can do their job in a competent fashion and be held to account for what they do in the future, not for what others might have done in the past.

Image credit: Morgan Treacy, Inpho.ie

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