FAI: The darkest hour before the dawn

Niall Quinn & Labour Senator Aodhan O Riordain at Leinster House, dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Niall Quinn yesterday described the FAI board’s intention to step down as “good news” and “a catalyst for serious change”.

Sports Minister Shane Ross also welcomed the seismic development which amounted to the Abbotstown hierarchy effectively raising the white flag — “in the interests of football” — after days and weeks of mounting controversy and ferocious pressure had finally reached the tipping point.

In the sterile language of the business of football, the suits frequently refer to their concern and respect for all the game’s “stakeholders” but, a few loyal grassroots devotees aside, what the FAI board have learned in recent times is that — from politicians and sponsors to players and supporters — the stakes being wielded were of the pointed variety and aimed directly at their collective heart.

It’s said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, but with questions of the utmost gravity now being raised about the Association’s finances and governance, it looks like there could be even darker days to come for some of the current — and departed - powers that be in Abbotstown before we awake to see a new sun rising on Irish football.

Back in the day, wherever the FAI would get themselves in some sort of cartoonish scrape, there was always a chuckle or two to be raised by depictions of the organisation as, to quote a couple of favourites, “a perpetually exploding clown’s car” and the “the dysfunctional body all the other dysfunctional bodies call the galacticos”.

But nobody’s laughing now, least of all, we should not forget, those working for the FAI in Abbotstown and around the country who are blameless for — and, indeed, some of whom suffered financially because of — decision-making at the highest level which has now brought the reputation of the organisation to its knees.

Still, out of difficulty comes opportunity, and at least the groundwork for radical change is now being laid, permitting the debate to move towards the composition of a new board with, among the more novel and intriguing ideas already being floated, the proposal — raised yesterday by TD Ruth Coppinger and enthusiastically endorsed by the Sports Minister — that supporters should be represented at the top table.

“That’s essential,” said Shane Ross.

One of most glaring things is about the elite at the top, but football is about the supporters. They should have definitely have places on the board of the body that runs football.

The League of Ireland has long complained about being undervalued by the FAI, seen but barely heard.

And if a revamped FAI is to truly restore confidence in its ability to govern, especially when it comes to the domestic game, they could certainly do worse than give a hearing to the committed fans of Cork City and Shamrock Rovers whose imaginative and energetic actions helped bring two of Ireland’s most famous clubs back from the brink.

And, across the game as a whole — as well as from way beyond the white lines — there shouldn’t be any shortage of capable and experienced people who would be able to bring fresh ideas and a more transparent way of doing business to the table.

Elsewhere on these pages, PFAI boss Stephen McGuinness talks about how the players’ voices also need to be key part of the conversation about the future of the game but his warning about the dangers of the changing of the guard degenerating into a power battle is timely, given that the politics of football in this country have long been bedevilled by factionalism and turf wars.

Not every problem in the game here has come from on high.

While we wait to see how events pan out, it would be instructive to have a clear picture of where the FAI finances stand right now, especially in light of the current freeze on State funding and what we have only recently learned about the worrying extent of the cash-flow problems which afflicted the Association just three years ago.

Every year is a big year for the grassroots of the game, of course but, with Uefa doubtless keeping a beady eye on the unfolding events here, 2019 is an especially significant year further up the food chain with the prestigious hosting of the U17 Euro finals just around the corner and, at the top of the pile, Mick McCarthy’s team engaged in a demanding qualification campaign which, all going well — on and off the pitch — will lead to matches in the Euro 2020 finals in the Aviva Stadium next year.

In this hydra-headed tale, it would appear that all roads also lead back to the Aviva.

In normal circumstances, the now (temporarily) departed executive vice president John Delaney would be entitled to bask in the solid bricks and mortar success of the transformative redevelopment of the old Lansdowne Road under his watch as FAI CEO and, indeed, for a long time he was only too happy to admonish sceptics who had said the impressive new stadium wouldn’t even pass the planning stage.

But, amid a fast deepening recession, the FAI effectively sowed the seeds for the current crisis by badly misreading the market at the time they launched their wildly overpriced 10-Year Premium Ticket scheme in 2008, with Vantage Club seats finding disastrously few takers at prices ranging from €12,000 all the way up to €32,000.

As a result, what Delaney at the outset was bullish about portraying as a plan which would not only cover the FAI’s costs in the stadium

development but would act as a cash cow for Irish football, instead saddled the Association with a burden of debt which would impact right across the game for years to come — and the full troubling implications of which are only now starting to see the light of day.

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