Tommy Martin: Dousing the flames of an administrative inferno

You’d almost feel sorry for Donal Conway.

Tommy Martin: Dousing the flames of an administrative inferno

You’d almost feel sorry for Donal Conway. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The role of FAI president was always a purely ceremonial one. Think Grand Marshal of the St Patrick’s Day parade, but without the cheering crowds and giant papier-maché models of Fionn McCumhaill.

It involved smiling in photos and stumbling through speeches at FAI events. Then dinner. The position was rotated among long-serving board members who’d put in the hard yards, nodding in agreement at the right times, throwing in the odd “I agree with John on this one.” You even got a lovely gold chain to wear.

So no wonder Donal Conway looks like a man who has won a game of pass the parcel, only to find the parcel contains a giant shit sandwich. Instead of enjoying Irish sport’s cushiest number — plum seats at international matches, VIP travel to major tournaments, then dinner — Conway has been thrust into the limelight as the most unconvincing front-man since Queen toured with that guy from American Idol in the Freddie Mercury role.

Perhaps Conway figured he could be the Red Adair of this administrative inferno, bravely facing down the flames, emerging eventually from the embers to appreciative cheers for his hitherto hidden sports governance talents. Instead, he is like the unfortunate Politburo man sent to sort out the Chernobyl explosion, only to find himself fatally poisoned by the toxic fallout.

There was something oddly familiar about the sight of the FAI board presenting the full cataclysmic majesty of their financial accounts last Friday. Anyone who has ever broken down on the side of a remote country road and stared at the smoke and hiss under the bonnet will know the feeling, which is the awareness of being utterly fucked without knowing precisely why.

To be fair, most of the sports journalists present would have shared the sense of doomed bamboozlement. Trained to file match reports on tight deadlines and solicit quotes from mumbling defenders, all the talk of retained assets, current liabilities and directors’ emoluments might have been difficult to process, were the simple message not that this was obviously really, really bad.

A more qualified verdict on Irish football’s financial Armageddon was provided by Niamh Brennan, a UCD professor of corporate governance, writing in the Irish Times. Pronouncing the FAI “at death’s door,” she pointed out the litany of subterfuge and scandal contained within the dry lines of the association’s accounts.

The board, Brennan said, had been captured by John Delaney, allowing him to do what he wanted. If the phrase “board capture” conjures up an image of incarceration, then it can hardly be said that the FAI’s unfortunate lags were doing hard labour.

This was a prison the blazered worthies of Irish football administration were desperate to break into, not out of. All those fancy trips, plush tickets and, of course, dinners? Guilty, your honour, send me down!

Conway and John Earley were the only survivors of the well-heeled cohort who bore Delaney on his gilded litter and are therefore the targets of most anger, given that their former slave master has scarpered from sight. But when you look at the backgrounds of these men, it becomes less surprising that they didn’t insist on high falutin’ things like internal audit procedures and compliance functions.

Conway is a former schoolteacher who rose up the ranks of the Football Association of Irish Schools, while Earley represents the Schoolboys Football Association of Ireland. That’s the FAIS and the SFAI to you. The People’s Front of Judea didn’t get a look-in.

These are not high-flying former executives or retired senior civil servants, the usual candidates for directorship roles. No, these are spare-time administrators of kids’ football, well-meaning arrangers of fixtures and drawers of cup ties who’ve shuffled through enough dull meeting rooms in a lifetime of plodding servitude to earn the privilege of FAI board easy-street, with its tickets, trips and dinners.

The temptation from the whole FAI saga is to view John Delaney as the bad man who did the bad things. He was supposed to be the professional in the room. John Delaney could run anything, remember? When it turned out that he was not a world class administrator, well that was just bad luck, right?

But everywhere you look right now there is evidence that the Victorian-era model of grey-bearded gentlemen on committees running the affairs of top-level sport is collapsing under the weight of today’s turbo-charged financial realities.

The FAI has been a bungling vaudeville act for decades, but in the old days its scandals concerned clueless selection committees, mysterious bundles of disappearing tickets and whispers of nocturnal escapades in eastern European hotel rooms. Now the gaffes happen in an industry where the currency is massive sponsorship deals rather than free dinners. As the saying goes, when you owe the bank 10 grand it’s your problem; when you owe them 10 million, it’s their problem.

The same struggle to translate amateurish committee machinations into professional business management afflicts GAA county boards. Many of the same issues — stadium debts, incomplete accounting, board accountability — have come to light in the financial woes afflicting Cork, Galway and Mayo county boards, among others.

Among the measures in the unpublished GAA Towards 2034 report, revealed by John Fogarty in this paper this week, were that each county board should employ full-time operations and financial managers, to put a shape on the business affairs of what are now multi-million euro enterprises, many of them with shadier financial transactions than a New Jersey waste management company.

No wonder the GAA put the document into a drawer. The lesson in all of this is that it turns out bumbling amateurism was not the best way to run sports organisations after all. The fallout from these financial scandals will take a long time to clear up, but they should at least show there should no longer be such thing as a free dinner in Irish sport.

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