John Delaney: The man who lost the Midas touch

Shane Ross might not be the only one still holding out for ‘root and branch’ reform of the FAI.

John Delaney: The man who lost the Midas touch

Shane Ross might not be the only one still holding out for ‘root and branch’ reform of the FAI.

But one striking measure of the extent to which the winds of change are blowing through the organisation is that Paul Cooke, the recently appointed vice president, was reportedly centrally involved in the negotiations which concluded with the official announcement of John Delaney’s resignation late on Saturday night.

Delaney and Cooke were both on the board of Waterford FC back in the 1990s but as the former ascended to national prominence as CEO of the FAI, the latter found himself on the opposition benches as a vocal but often isolated critic of how the Association went about its business.

Back in April, before he was brought in from the cold and appointed Vice President at the FAI’s AGM in July, Cooke spoke in an interview with the Sunday Times about where he thought it had all begun to go wrong for Delaney and the FAI.

“When I first met John on the Waterford board in 1997, he didn’t have a massive ego,” Cooke said. “I think what happened was he was given too much power. If you didn’t have an editor that you had to report to, would you run amok? In every other organisation there are controls in place, a strong board who are going to question, in a collegiate manner. Debate might be a better word than questioning. John did do some good things for Irish football but there was no control over him. Then there were the same people sitting ‘round the same table for 13 years.”

Outlining what he felt was needed to restore confidence in the FAI, Cooke talked about a new board which would have an independent chairman and be comprised of “strong people who can let the CEO go off and do what he needs to do, which is nitty-gritty, anonymous”.

“There are reports of people asking John for his autograph and he cultivated that,” Cooke added. “Nobody is asking (GAA CEO) Tom Ryan or (IRFU CEO) Philip Browne for their autograph.”

It’s not a bad summation of the arc of John Delaney’s years as the country’s most high-profile and controversial sports administrator, a career which is now destined to be defined by how it ended — ignominiously.

Upon his permanent appointment as CEO in March 2005, there were many who regarded Delaney a breath of fresh air in a stuffy, old world boardroom, someone with the youthful energy and business acumen to lead the FAI into a brave new world, from Genesis to rehabilitation.

In the light of current events, ironically, his appointment 14 years ago came against the backdrop of troubled relations between the FAI and the Government, with Delaney — who had held the CEO position on an interim basis following Fran Rooney’s departure the previous November — intervening to repair the damage.

The two sides had been at odds over whether the chief executive’s post would be publicly advertised and Delaney’s promise that it would be was seen as key to ensuring the release of Sports Council funding which the government had threatened to withhold. A series of commercial deals which he landed as interim boss also helped make him the odds-on favourite to be given the job on a permanent basis. In-house, he was already ‘JD’, the man with the Midas touch.

Top of the new CEO’s agenda was the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road, a project he described as “critical to the future of the game”.

So it would prove, but for ill as well as good. That the dilapidated old ground has been replaced by the sparkling Aviva, a stadium fit for the Euro 2020 finals, should have been the most positive, untainted legacy of Delaney’s stewardship but, because of wildly misplaced confidence in the health of an economy which was about to go over a recession cliff, the FAI’s vastly over-priced premium ticket scheme backfired disastrously.

Those of us who were present for the now infamous ‘Vantage Club’ launch in Irishtown in 2008 well remember all the bullish talk that day, not least from Delaney himself, about how — in the hubristic certainty that there would be a clamour to snap up ten-year tickets with prices ranging from €12,000 to €32,000 — the new stadium was destined to act as a cash cow for the FAI for years to come.

Instead, as has been well documented by now, the collapse of the scheme saddled Irish football with a crippling debt, with Delaney only finally conceding in public as recently as February that “mistakes were made”.

In what neither he nor we knew at the time would be one of his last public appearances as CEO before side-stepping to the newly created role of Executive Vice President, he was speaking on the day the association launched its new premium ticket scheme, this time with almost apologetic tone to prices which ranged from €2,000 for three years to €5,000 for ten.

The stadium debt forms the towering backdrop to everything that has happened at the FAI in those intervening ten years, up to and including the Sunday Times’ revelation in March of Delaney’s €100,000 loan to the association in 2017, a story which — with the then CEO having failed in court to block its publication — quickly snowballed into the most serious crisis an organisation not unaccustomed to turbulence has ever faced.

It’s a mind-bending saga which has now officially claimed John Delaney as its biggest casualty, the man behind the wheel as Brian Kerr, Steve Staunton, Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane came and went as Ireland managers, and who oversaw the succession plan which now has Stephen Kenny on schedule to take over from Mick McCarthy.

We were regularly assured, and most especially by the former CEO himself, that such important matters as managerial hiring and firing were always “a matter for the board” but few observers ever doubted that Delaney was the driving force in all the key decision-making at the FAI, someone to whom — as Paul Cooke’s comments suggest — the rest of the board appeared to be in thrall.

And not just the FAI, it should be noted, as evidenced by Delaney’s ascension to UEFA’s all-powerful Executive Committee two years ago, proof that he was as successful at cultivating support in football’s international corridors of powers as he was among the grassroots in Irish football where, at least until recently, he continued to receive backing from loyalists who would highlight the hours he spent on the road visiting rural clubs and insist that he was the victim of a Dublin-based, media-driven witch-hunt.

It was a view, however, which would have found little favour among cash-strapped League of Ireland clubs and others in the game left vulnerable by the FAI’s parlous financial state, even as the CEO’s lavish salary — before expenses and other perks, about which we have only recently begun to learn — peaked at €450,000.

No-one has ever charged that Delaney didn’t work hard at his job but, along the way, he also survived a number of controversies — including the Sepp Blatter €5million, the Republican ballad performance, and all too public evidence that he had partied well but not wisely at Euro 2012 — while never showing much sign that he was uncomfortable with his unlikely celebrity status.

Here, after all, was a man who considered himself enough of ‘a player’ to venture onto the pitch at the final whistle and throw his FAI tie into the stands.

But, by the bitter end, from the time of his show-that-was-really-a-no-show in front of the Oireachtas Committee, and with the drip-drip of media revelations turning into a torrent, he had become something very different: almost an invisible man, a spectral presence whose name the previously infatuated FAI could barely bring themselves to mention until, as midnight loomed on Saturday night, they finally confirmed the inevitability of his formal departure.

But, with a number of investigations into the FAI still to be concluded, it’s unlikely to be the last time we will see John Delaney’s name in the headlines.

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