The State of Football

This column first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday, November 25th.

When the announcement came on Wednesday morning that Martin O’Neill and the FAI were to part company it was greeted with little surprise.

Just like in politics sport rarely gives the opportunity to Managers to leave on a high and at a time of their choosing.

Sport can be a brutal environment in that there always needs to be a team fielded and a position filled. There have been kind words said about the highs of O’Neill’s tenure and plenty more critical ones of the last twelve months since Denmark went oh so wrong at the Aviva Stadium.

O’Neill will move on and will have financial security so that he can take his time. He has already said he is looking forward to the next chapter in his footballing life.

The FAI will also be moving, though perhaps with greater speed, to appoint a successor.

Clarity

Ideally, there will be some clarity on who that might be in time for this day next week when the football world arrives in Dublin for the Draw for the group stages of Euro 2020.

Whoever is appointed the new manager will provide a lift to spirits of fans. It always does as was the case with O’Neill five years ago and Giovanni Trappatoni before him.

We will have some highs over the coming years.  Those are the days we remember and we live for through sport.  But it is entirely possible we will be having the same wringing of hands, anxiety and anger in five years time.  If you can’t be optimistic at the dawn of a new era then what hope.

The results of the Senior team are generally the yardstick against which sport at all levels is judged.  In terms of the wider and deeper base on which the game is built though, that is a game played out over a longer period.

There was idle talk this week as well that O’Neill would not be the only one to go, that there was a grassroots revolt coming against John Delaney.  Now that is speculation that has been around a while and which is based on an emotional reaction rather than a long-term one.

Delaney feels that he gets a bad press in Ireland, one that does not reflect the feeling there is towards him within the game.  The argument is that the structure of the game here, without a fully fit for purpose domestic game, is down to his leadership and removing him would lead to a better state of affairs.

Incentives

There are ways in which Government tax incentives on investment in football could generate a better overall game, just as it has with horse racing.  In that sport, we lead the world.  The only sphere in which we come close to being as good may be begrudgery and that’s where Delaney may feel the criticism comes from.

It’s true that the base of club fans is far wider for Man United or Liverpool than for Dundalk or Cork but management won’t shift that.  Investment in facilities would play a part and the development of Dalymount, Tallaght and elsewhere will create a better environment for fans than has been the case.

A significant shift towards the European model of family support as opposed to heavily male biased as exists here and also in the UK would also help.

The FAI’s investment in people that play is where the main difference can be affected and that is happening.

Throughout the occasional glory days of old, we have relied on others, generally in England to bring up our players and then loan them for international matches.

Over the past four years, the FAI under Director of Football Ruud Doktor has built a system based on principles of true player development.  The advent of U19, U17, U15 and U13 National Leagues gives us the prospect of having a genuine system that creates players who can play and perhaps even win together.

Finances

Much of the criticism of Delaney is based on the finances of the FAI and the impact which contributing to the building of the Aviva Stadium has had.

He remains adamant that there is the potential to have the loans paid back by 2020, and to have an asset in the stadium which is then mortgage free and likely to be around for the next 40 years.

The FAI board believes that though the lack of fresh blood at that level is a concern.  It would not change the view of Delaney at grassroots level though, where he has been the consummate politician.  No dinner or prize night was too far away, no small assistance with grants and funding overlooked.  He has built a powerful base that would be as distrustful of the media commentators as he is.

The Aviva is a cash generator as well, more so than a millstone.  Aviva’s renewal of the naming rights runs through to 2025 guaranteeing tens of millions in guaranteed income for the FAI, the IRFU and the Stadium itself.

The Euro 2020 Championships will loom larger than ever after next weekend.  If the new manager can lead the Boys in Green to the same stage of that as O’Neill achieved in 2016 in France, the benefit in cash and prize money terms will be in the region of €14 million according to UEFA figures.

Regardless, the net benefit for the city of Dublin, the hospitality, hotel and transport sectors will be many times that.

UEFA

Delaney’s stock in Europe is substantially higher than it is at home.  His election to the Executive Committee of UEFA was a landslide and there is serious talk of him as a future Secretary General.

The current deal as principal sponsor with 3 runs to 2020 and negotiations on the next stage of that will get underway shortly if not already in the early stages. Remember when the company bought O2 it was left for a year with both the Rugby and the Football partnerships.

It chose football at the time and while results in the recent past may make that seem like a call they might not make again, the depth of interest in football at every level here, never mind on a global basis should never be underestimated.

It worked in Belgium. The likelihood is that it will work here as well though it will be an international manager that will be credited with discovering the secret sauce, as is always the case.

At a societal level, the FAI is doing fine.  Its Football for All programme is better than any other in terms of diversity, disability and other areas where sport can do good.  The Women’s sport, driven at a national level and backed strongly by the might of UEFA is also proving a winner in the rising tide of Women’s sport. In the next wave of where we look to from sport, the world of the active ageing, football once again is out front with the development of Walking Football.  You may chuckle now but time waits for no one and this has the potential to do as much for older generations as the development of five a side did for the social sport.

The FAI is on the road to a new managerial era and perhaps the most important couple of years in terms of its place as a European nation.  That will encompass the hosting of four games in the Euro 2020 Championships, the whole tournament in the U17’s next year and potential bids for the U21 Championships in 2023 and perhaps even the FIFA World Cup in 2030.

Managers come and go. The game remains.

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