A better, brighter era awaits with beginning of the end of old FAI

UEFA Nations League, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 16/10/2018 Republic of Ireland vs Wales A dejected Ireland fan. Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

They can’t escape now. Not even him. For sure, John Delaney will prolong this for as long as he can and stick it out for as big a severance package as he can, but anyone following yesterday’s events from Leinster House wouldn’t have had to wait for Shane Ross’s mic drop to come to a similar conclusion: This is the beginning of the end of the old FAI.

For sure there were people at and following yesterday’s Oireachtas committee meeting wanted that end to be yesterday; in that way, we are all Ruth Coppinger.

But as the measured Kieran Mulvey and John Treacy had to remind us, it isn’t quite as simple as that.

As clearly exasperated as they have been with how contemptuous the FAI have sometimes been in this whole process, there still has to be some board in situ to interact with.

Sport Ireland can’t communicate and negotiate with empty chairs. What’s most significant of all though is that there should be new faces and bums in those chairs.

Though Mulvey pointed out in a response to a deputy’s question that Sport Ireland do not currently have the authority to insist upon the FAI appointing a completely new board, he didn’t have to spell out a clear inference: informed by the public mood as well as their own, Sport Ireland will hardly give taxpayers’ money to essentially the same wolf in new clothing, Hilfiger or not, expenses covered or not.

This whole saga, story, has basically all come down to the money. Following it. The threat of withholding it and of losing it.

Yesterday though even that narrative had quite the spike with the news that the FAI’s auditors declaring that the FAI’s accounts had not been properly kept and were contravening two sections of the Companies Act. Now the Taoiseach is talking about the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement investigating the FAI’s books. Shit’s getting really real, as the man might say.

As fascinating as some of the findings of that investigation may be, and indeed many of the other revelations that may continue to emerge about the workings and finances of the old FAI, it does not change the bottom line here.

History will not be kind to the outgoing board of the FAI, especially its former CEO and his surely short-lived stint as executive vice-president.

And a better, brighter era surely awaits for the sport. For while yesterday was an awful, humiliating day for the FAI, it was a great one for Irish football itself.

For a long time now, the FAI have been the great erratic, the great outlier, of Irish sport. While almost every other major national governing body that competes internationally modernised itself either post-Athens or post-Beijing to satisfy the standards being implicitly demanded by Treacy and the Sports Council and its high-performance arm, the Institute of Sport, the FAI’s board remained an anachronism.

Though it physically moved to Abbotstown, spiritually it never became of Abbotstown.

While the likes of Gary Keegan and Liam Harbison and Sarah Keane just a block or two around the corner would work diligently and quietly away, as athletes like Katie Taylor and Jason Smyth and Grainne Murphy became the face of their increasingly more successful and progressive sports, Delaney was out front and centre, Mr FAI, a Celtic Tiger leader when that animal had long last roared.

While Harbison, Keane, and Keegan tried to live as well as preach the importance of values and the proper culture – athlete-centred, accounting for every euro because every euro could be the difference between an athlete making a major games or not, or of medalling at those games or not, of partaking in that sport or not – the FAI was at war with its women’s international team left togging out in airport toilets, and its men’s professional players body, though they shared the same office floor.

Delaney – and his board – seemed to not so much see himself so much as CEO of a national governing body as that of another organisation in the oil-money world that is football. His peers were more a Garry Cook of Man City than a Sarah Keane of Swim Ireland. And so his board paid his rent on top of his salary, when far more high-performing operators in Irish sport would have baulked at the thought of such a handout and how many more carded athletes or grassroots coaches that could fund for a year.

In the world of business they talk about the danger and phenomenon that is CEO disease, a pattern of behaviour among chief executive officers who become intoxicated with the power and perks of office.

Symptoms include believing in their own omnipotence, surrounding themselves with yes-men and brutally responding to any opposition.

Quite evidently, the phenomenon has also existed in the business of Irish sport. But quite clearly now, Irish sport, or at least Sport Ireland, has had enough of it.

Minister Shane Ross made it clear that he wished to see a new board in place, sooner rather than later.

John Treacy spoke about how there had been an improper balance in the board-CEO power dynamic but that would have to be different with a new FAI. No more Yes Men need apply.

And there will be a new FAI, just as there is now a new OCI. Just as Olympic sport in this country has coped without Pat Hickey, so too will Irish soccer without John Delaney.

For a time his backers thought he was indispensable, that the sport could lose him to the private sector, but as a Cork band who openly admired the passing ability of a certain footballer given a ball and a yard of grass, it’s time that was put to the testo.

Irish football could do with a rebrand. Just as the old Irish Amateur Swimming Association became Swim Ireland to distance itself from an infamous past, and we now have an Olympic Federation of Ireland post-Rio, Irish football could do with being called something like Irish Football. Because for now and some time, the FAI brand is toxic.

Play a game of word association. Hear the word ‘GAA’ and who or what does it trigger? It’s not one person, is it? It’s not about one person, is it?

But what does mention of the word ‘FAI’ trigger?

It should be kids out in your local field; its games officers spreading the word as passionately and as competently as their counterparts in rugby and GAA; Mick McCarthy and the national team.

Instead it’s most likely you pictured a man refusing to answer questions at an Oireachtas committee meeting, and-or if you’re a bit older, of scandals and resignations down by Merrion Square.

More than a new rebrand – Delaney himself had quite the makeover – it needs new faces and a new board to be in step with the rest of Irish sport and the corporate governance of most NGBs.

For that the FAI will need to be both closely scrutinised and guided, afforded both a glower and a helping hand to ensure the necessary transformation.

Treacy and Sport Ireland should provide that, all the more so as they are empowered by a more emboldened and even enlightened government when it comes to sporting matters.

And with it, Irish football should finally be provided with the governing body the game itself and its players and people deserve.

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