Rooney plays hardball when it comes to business of football

The FAI’s new chief executive, Fran Rooney, is a man of firm action and strong words. Bill George reports.

IT is not so long ago that the principal executive of the FAI posed for TV by sitting in the boot of a car and waving delightedly for the cameras as he was driven away to welcome Jack Charlton and Ireland on their return from a major championship.

That gauche and embarrassing image confirmed, for many, the lack of status of an organisation more celebrated in its frailties and its foibles than its wisdom or dynamism.

To suggest that one hour spent in the company of FAI new chief executive Fran Rooney was enough to dispel all doubts about the future development of the association, smacks of a rush to judgment. But the signs were encouraging.

To deal first with the trivial: "We've already had opportunities to do TV stuff and we've been asked to do silly things we had a scenario where I was given the opportunity to juggle a ball on the street.

"I said 'forget it'. I didn't even touch the ball because that's not what it's about. You want me to speak to you about issues then I'll speak to you, but don't ask me to do gimmicky things because that is bringing the office and the association into disrepute.

"Whether it's me or you, or whoever in the future filling the position, the office of chief executive should have a status and I'm very strong on that."

Yes, that was Fran Rooney speaking, already in full flow and scarcely six weeks in the job. Fran Rooney successful businessman, self-made millionaire. Above all, Fran Rooney: football fan.

Those who matter in the FAI have high hopes for the new chief executive. They know there is a huge job to be done, one with unlimited potential.

They believe they have secured an exceptional executive, that he is the complete package. On the one hand is his business record, on the other the fact he could comfortably have juggled that ball for the cameras. His football background gives him insight.

Rooney took office on May 1 on a part-time basis and went full-time on June 1. The impact he has made in that relatively short time has been considerable.

In-house, at the FAI's Merrion Square headquarters, he made his first appointment, a HR professional.

"Tadhg O'Halloran is our HR person and his brief has been to put in place all of the HR principles and procedures that should be there, including contracts of employment, terms and conditions and job specification and that's happening" he said.

He moved just as quickly to change the way the FAI related to its public through its telephone system.

"It is appropriate for some businesses to have automated telephone systems. When our people, our army of volunteers, ring headquarters they have a problem, they want an answer, they don't want to talk to a machine.

"So we have changed things to ensure they are answered by a person who will listen to what they have to say and take the necessary steps to deal with whatever issue is raised."

On assuming control, he was quickly faced with a major crisis the issue of the Sky TV contract, the bleating from RTÉ and the Government's legislation that was designed to overturn the Sky contract.

The FAI had concluded a deal with Sky that was worth 7.5m to the association and Rooney said: "The TV deal was very important. The Sky deal had already been in place, now it was a question of protecting as much of the Sky deal as possible and bringing RTÉ on board."

In that event, Rooney succeeded spectacularly. The FAI had to sacrifice some of the Sky money because they lost their exclusive coverage, but they negotiated a more reasonable fee from RTÉ. The 3.2m fee from Sky added to the 2.3m from RTÉ gave the association 5.5m. Previously RTÉ had paid only 1.4m.

He said: "We played hard-ball with RTÉ because it was important the fee reflected the value of our product. We made it plain to them we were prepared to let the issue go to an arbitrator if they did not improve their offer."

Busy times for the new man but, perhaps, the most demanding element of his work to date relates to tomorrow's AGM of the association in

Galway. There, delegates will be asked to vote on an issue of far-reaching consequences.

The FAI board of management consists of 23 members. Last November the FAI Council approved its reduction to 10 members president, hon secretary, hon treasurer, CEO, and the chairpersons of six FAI committees.

The six committees are the eircom league, the domestic committee, the development committee, the legal and corporate affairs committee, the underage committee and the international committee.

It is proposed each of those committees will be composed of 12 people. They will consist of eight nominated by FAI affiliate bodies, ie eircom league, ladies football, provincial associations, schools football etc, etc.

Two others will be elected by the FAI Council and two others specially selected by a three-person committee of the president, CEO and one other nominated by council.

Rooney is excited at the prospect of establishing efficient, representative bodies within a structure geared to facilitate dynamic decision-making.

"What the new structure gives is a great opportunity for new people to come on to the committees. If they are not selected by their own affiliate to represent them, they can then put themselves forward for election by the council.

"If they don't make the election they can still be selected by the three guys so that gives us a great chance to bring new talent on to the committees. The committee will then meet and elect a chairperson and that chairperson will become a board member by virtue of election."

He added: "People who maybe never had a chance in the past of sitting on a committee now have a chance of chairing that committee and becoming a board member. So it hugely increases the democratic process."

A major consideration is that no one affiliate of the association can have more than four representatives on any committee.

In the past, the eircom league clubs have been charged with monopolising committees and forcing through decisions that were good for the league rather than football at large.

A presentation group representing the FAI has been touring the country in recent months explaining the proposed changes in the organisation and lobbying for support. Rooney joined that group in recent weeks and he stressed the desire for change was very strong in every part of the country.

Tomorrow's vote at the AGM will be the definitive test of that. And because Rooney has succeeded in bringing the members of the football family with him on so many issues already, it will come as a surprise if he does not succeed here as well.

After all, it was he who went into the public arena to talk to the fans and persuade them of the value of adding to the colour and atmosphere of the international matches at Lansdowne Road. The fruits of this work were seen in recent matches against Albania and Georgia.

The development appealed to his nature as a genuine football fan, but the businessman in him put a different more hard-nosed spin on the reasons behind his initiative.

He said: "The interesting thing is if we improve the product, it is more attractive to commercial people, to sponsors, to Government and all of that, so you start to attract money into the game and that's what it's about.

"Football is a business, it's becoming a business now, and what I mean very clearly is we need money to invest in the grassroots level of the game, that's what we're here to do. We're here to develop and foster the game, increase participation in the game, that's what we're here for.

"To do that we need money. To get money we have to make our product more attractive and that's the business of football."

And the business of football is what Rooney is all about.

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