It became a recurrent theme, on John Delaney visits to 2,000 clubs during his 14 years as FAI chief executive, to conclude by reciting the salutary advice of his mother Joan about always bringing something for his hosts.
The most common parting gifts were free tickets for internationals or even a donation, either of which guaranteed acclaim from his audience.
For Irish football as a whole, however, what Delaney has left behind as remnants from his tenure is a legacy of ridicule.
The game was in crisis long before a whistleblower set in train a series of events culminating in Delaney’s downfall last Saturday. Under any measurement, that was clear; only Delaney and his loyal band of disciples could argue to the contrary.
That peril of groupthink had been established stretching back to the rising star’s appointment to the top job in 2005.
Shrewdly, Delaney built his power base with a fusion of protecting his loyalists and dispensing with the dissenters. The Waterford native thrived from surrounding himself with safe bets. All had their skillsets and in unison carried an acceptance to allow the chief executive lead from the front. The man sharing a birthday with Oscar Wilde benefited from the importance of being earnest.
Delaney’s first full calendar year at the helm, 2006, was synonymous with his recruitment of Steve Staunton as senior manager. That decision, in time deemed the worst of his administrative career, was offset by a subtler one during the same 12 months.
Ireland’s temporary move to Croke Park presented Delaney with a lightbulb moment. The historic switch had to be marked and an open invitation was extended to all former internationals to the first soccer match at the GAA stadium.
Not alone were the veterans ferried to watch the win over Wales but put up at the Burlington Hotel, where the free food and drink flowed.
A political masterstroke it certainly was. Former players are a go-to lobby for media to elicit opinions on topical issues and they were impressed by the new supremo’s initiative. “John Delaney is the first FAI CEO to care a tuppence about ex-players,” asserted John Giles.
Several other figureheads were brought onside. The man who put the ball in the English and Italian nets, Ray Houghton, had been critical of a past CEO Bernard O’Byrne for refusing him a testimonial in 1998. A decade later and Houghton was an FAI ambassador and headhunter in managerial searches that led to Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill being recruited.
Furthermore, the adoration between Delaney and Houghton was captured on video in an Irish pub on the eve of the Euro 2012 qualifier in Russia. “John, in my opinion, epitomises what the FAI are about,” ‘Razor’ as Houghton was affectionately know, told a group of raucous fans.
Ireland were on their way to a first Euros for 24 years, a trajectory in keeping with Delaney’s sense of invincibility.
The journey to Poland and Ukraine succeeded in deflecting from an abysmal uptake of his pet project, a premium ticket scheme for the redeveloped Lansdowne Road.
Doubters, mostly in the media, were met with a riposte of a debt-free promise by 2020. After that milestone, the venue was to become a pension for the FAI. Or, as Delaney put it, a toll bridge.
Overcoming troubled waters on the home front was secured by a divide and conquer strategy.
Limerick was supposed to be grateful for Delaney bringing two internationals to Thomond Park in 2009 while Lansdowne was under construction. The only problem for the locals was that none of the 26,000 tickets were allocated for children.
When the secretary of the Limerick underage league Gerry McCormack raised the issue, the media attention it attracted forced the FAI to row back and designate a batch to kids at reduced prices.
Before the next AGM of the Schoolboys FAI in Kerry, McCormack was approached by one of the CEO’s handlers and prepped for the backlash. In his speech to delegates, Delaney made reference to solving issues within the football family without giving the press an easy story.
Stalwarts on the underage scene have regularly cited that line for irony purposes as Delaney’s demise deepened in recent months.
“The FAI was a one-man show under John Delaney,” reflected McCormack, now retired after giving 42 years of service to his league.
“He ignored me at the AGM and had a go in his speech but all the mattered was that our schoolboys and schoolgirls got the same tickets as matches held in Dublin. It wasn’t my problem that he couldn’t take any form of criticism.”
Most of Delaney’s close calls were self-inflicted but there was always someone to blame or a diversion to grasp.
Think of the 18,000 match programmes getting pulped in 2015 for ill-judged comments on Fifa. The purge wasn’t his decision.
Ditto for the reverse qualifier in Scotland eight months earlier. Diehard members of the Green Army aghast at being overlooked for tickets were informed, via a radio interview, that someone in the office had messed up.
Even during his farcical showing before an Oireachtas committee in April, a bus outside hurtling down Kildare Street carried a few extra passengers beneath.
Delaney claims his then finance director Eamon Breen hadn’t advised the board of the statutory requirement to include the infamous €100,000 loan in the annual accounts.
Neither did secretary Michael Cody and treasurer Eddie Murray raise the matter at the next board meeting.
By the end of the 2012 Euros, a showreel of Delaney’s socialising moments had been produced.
Rather than laughing with Delaney, most supporters were laughing at him and the embarrassment to the FAI delegation didn’t go unnoticed.
One particular video of Delaney in a dishevelled state on a Polish town square proved the last straw for some. While Delaney defended his antics and deemed the tournament a success from a logistical perspective, he was less forthcoming about the families of players being housed above a lap-dancing club.
“It was like staying in Ayia Napa or Playa Del Ingles,” Damien Duff later said. “You look back and think, who goes over and chooses these things?”
A meeting was called for the Davenport Hotel in central Dublin. President Paddy McCaul, flanked by fellow board member Eamon Naughton, called out their chief executive for damaging the association’s reputation.
Delaney fought fire with fire, contending he alone was responsible for hatching the major sponsorship deals, including Denis O’Brien’s contribution to the wages of Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli. The human resources skills of Tom Jordan, enlisted to mediate between the warring factions, were stretched.
Delaney wasn’t for moving and it proved a short-lived mutiny. The seven other board members kept their hands in their pockets as the uprising failed to ignite.
Those of an older persuasion, namely Cody and Murray, would be rewarded. Instead of being retired off under rule, an amendment at an EGM two years later facilitated continuation into their eighties.
It didn’t matter that the fractures from his grandiose Vantage Club scheme were appearing, from staff redundancies to the cuts in League of Ireland prize money. They were his difficult child.
In early 2014, just as his relationship with the Players Football Association of Ireland (PFAI) began to hit the rocks. It stemmed from an article in which their general secretary Stephen McGuiness advised Delaney to abort his 2020 debt-free pledge. He also called for fresh blood at the top table.
“I got an email calling me to a meeting,” recounts McGuinness. “We share the same building in Abbotstown but Delaney wanted it offsite. From the inside pocket of his blazer, he brandished the newspaper, questioning who the hell I was to be publicly questioning him.
“There was no debate. Within a minute, he cupped his hand towards his chest, saying ‘it doesn’t matter what you think or say because I’ve got the board with me’.
“I was taken aback by his tone but didn’t argue. I didn’t see any point in it because he was dead right. You just couldn’t win against that.”
And there were many losers.
Much of the outrage since the revelations began to trickle in March centre on Delaney’s extravagant spending and expenses, yet the rules only required Murray and Breen to approve them. That clause was removed in the latest rulebook.
That board he spoke of so glowingly had limited powers, being kept in the dark on such macro matters such as the salaries of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane. Their awakening only came after the faultlines emerged.
Delaney’s soft centre was exposed and would ultimately lead to his resignation.