The Big Interview with new FAI President Gerry McAnaney: The keeper of the faith

As the newly elected President of the FAI, Gerry McAnaney has a six-month term of office in which to play his part in taking the Association from what he calls ‘a very dark place’. In this exclusive interview, the former League of Ireland goalkeeper and Army commandant takes us through his colourful life and times in football.

The Big Interview with new FAI President Gerry McAnaney: The keeper of the faith

As the newly elected President of the FAI, Gerry McAnaney has a six-month term of office in which to play his part in taking the Association from what he calls ‘a very dark place’. In this exclusive interview, the former League of Ireland goalkeeper and Army commandant takes us through his colourful life and times in football.

A fortnight ago, on what was his first public outing as new elected president of the FAI, Gerry McAnaney happened to mention that his father, who hailed from Killea on the Donegal /Derry border, had worked in the ESB in Ballyshannon with the father of guitar legend Rory Gallagher.

On this midweek morning, as we sit down in an office in Abbotstown to talk about the new President’s life and times — and his elevation to high office in a seismic year in the history of the FAI — he offers another interesting biographical detail about his father. “I only found out in later years that he actually babysat Rory,” he says with a grin.

McAnaney himself never met the great man but last May he did make the pilgrimage to Ballyshannon, in the company of his friend Brian Kerr, to attend the annual festival held in honour of the town’s famous son.

It was in deference to his father’s Donegal roots that, when he appeared before the media after his election last Saturday week, the 61-year-old McAnaney prefaced his remarks by stressing that his surname is pronounced ‘Mac-a-nanny’. But he was himself born in Dublin — his mother hailed from Rathgar — after his father’s work took him to the capital.

Growing up in Rathfarnham, he was football-obsessed from a young age, regularly attending Milltown (though contrary to one recent report, he never actually played for Shamrock Rovers) and combining his gra for the Hoops with supporting the Chelsea team which won the FA Cup in 1970.

“Bobby Tambling would have been up on my wall as a kid and then, many years later, I ended up playing against him when he came to Cork and was with Avondale,” he remarks.

A goalkeeper from the off — “I just got into it, throwing myself around the road” — he joined the famous southside nursery Rangers AFC at time when, in the team two years above him, the club was bringing through such soon to be famous names as Kevin Moran, Gerry Ryan and Pat Byrne.

Though McAnaney would never follow in their footsteps to senior international honours, he was good enough to be capped at U15 level in a side which included a rising young talent by the name of David O’Leary. Years later, McAnaney would find himself in the Chateau bar in Cork, celebrating wildly — “like all the other lunatics” — as he watched his former schoolboy team mate enter Irish sporting folklore with that penalty kick in Genoa.

After completing his Leaving Cert in Templeogue College in 1975 — and following a brief spell as an Assistant Librarian in RTÉ — McAnaney began a career in the Army which, including serving as Regional Director of Military Police and tours of duty with the UN in Lebanon, would see him rise to the position of Commandant.

“I met so many great people,” he says of the army life. “Soldiers are great: you can’t fool a soldier. They’ll see through you, they really will. If you treat them properly, they will go through the wall for you. If they’re on your side, they’re on your side.”

***

It was at the outset of his army career in 1979 that a posting to Cork — the city where he still lives — saw McAnaney forge an enduring connection with football on Leeside, playing first for Cork Alberts and then Cobh Ramblers and Cork City, as well as playing with and later coaching College Corinthians.

FAI president Gerry McAnaney with Jess Lawton, Uefa B licence participant, at a coaching course in Fota Island Resort, Cork, on Friday. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
FAI president Gerry McAnaney with Jess Lawton, Uefa B licence participant, at a coaching course in Fota Island Resort, Cork, on Friday. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

With City he started out in a reserve team which at the time included the likes of John Caulfield, Declan Daly and Patsy Freyne, all of whom would graduate to the status of immortals at the club. For his part, McAnaney went on to make about eight appearances in the League of Ireland at a time when the legendary Noel O’Mahony was at the City helm. And, for a relatively small ‘keeper in what he remembers as a young side, the top flight could be a daunting and even disorientating experience.

“I remember being up in Oriel Park when Dundalk had the likes of Richie Blackmore and Martin Lawlor. A superb team. And they were huge as well. I remember corner kicks when I couldn’t even see the fella taking the corner, people were so big around me. So this corner kick comes in and there was big roar: ‘what a save’. What had actually happened was that the ball had hit my thumb — I didn’t even know it — and then hit the top of Philip Long’s head and then gone out for another corner.

“I remember as the game went on, Noel O’Mahony roaring like a bull at me and pointing at himself. I was wondering what he was on about. Our formation was basically two banks of four and five with Patsy Freyne up on his own, so I used to be trying to find Patsy. But when we got in at half-time Noel took my head off. I said to him, ‘but why are you pointing at yourself?’ And he says, ‘Because I want you to kick it out over my head’. It was like rugby. I was to find touch over his head to kill the game and start again. Crazy carry-on (laughs).

“Another thing is that Paddy Daly refereed the same game. I’d happened to be up in Dublin the night before and, though I was no drinker, I’d gone out that night. During the game I think I slid outside the box and he gave a free in for handball or something. And as I was getting up he says to me: ‘You weren’t sliding like that last night in Charleville Tennis Club’. Turned out he used to do the door there and that’s where I’d gone with a few lads. So there was no escape.”

By the way, what was the result?

“I think it was one-nil or two-nil.” He laughs. “It was certainly nil to us.”

***

If League of Ireland football gave him a taste of the magic — and madness — of the elite game in Ireland, it was Army football which gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best known names in the world game.

“We had George Best on the pitch in Collins Barracks for a charity game in 1986,” he recalls. “Dermot Earley, Moss Keane, Tony Ward and myself played in that one too — because everyone wanted to play against George Best. And there’s a magnificent photograph of George doing a shimmy against Dermot Earley and you’ve Dermot looking one way and George going the other way.”

It was another Man United great, Paddy Crerand who, having brought Best to Dublin for that match, subsequently helped arrange for the Defence Forces team to travel to England for games against sides representing Man United, Man City and Liverpool.

In the Liverpool game, at Melwood, you had Bruce Grobbelaar in one goal and me in the other. Steve Staunton played in that one as well. And I remember it was nil-all with ten minutes to go — I’ll never forgive the manager, he brought on a couple of centre-backs who wouldn’t have been quite up to it — and we got done 4-0.

And then there was the extraordinary postscript of an urgent request from Kenny Dalglish.

“We went to see Everton against Liverpool at Goodison the following night and we got this message: ‘Kenny is looking for his ball’. We’d mixed up the balls and taken one of theirs. And we had to give it back. That’s as true as I’m sitting here!”

As a player and then player manager, Army football also gave McAnaney the chance to pit his wits against some of European football’s top names, with military service requirements on the continent meaning Ireland’s games against their French counterparts could feature some surprisingly familiar faces in the opposition ranks. “I would have played against Fabien Barthez, Emmanuel Petit and David Ginola,” he recalls.

After one of those games, at Terryland Park, the visiting team’s then coach Roger Lemerre, with whom McAnaney had struck up a friendship, told him that if France reached the 1998 World Cup final he would invite him to be his guest at the game. That’s nice, thought Gerry, assuming that would be the last he’d ever hear about it.

“And then — true story — the night they won the semi-final, the phone rang in my house: “Gerry, it’s Roger, comment ca va, are you coming to the final?’ And I said: am I coming to the final? So myself and the other lad who ran the team with me, Tom Shaw, a youth international in his day as well, went Michael O’Leary over to the Merrion Square of Paris, collected our tickets and off we went to the World Cup Final.

“The tickets we had meant we were over by the corner flag where all the team’s families were. And when France won, that’s where all the players ran to so we were right in the middle of it. I was slapping Barthez’s bald head, an d Lemerre, who was the assistant manager at the time, was holding up the trophy and roaring up at me. Great memories.”

Lemerre went on to succeed Aime Jacquet and manage France to victory in Euro 2000.

“I still get the odd text from him so I mean to contact him now because he’ll be thrilled about me becoming President — we might get a game against France, you never know!”

***

Which brings us neatly to the present day, and Gerry McAnaney’s elevation to high office after nearly 20 years on the FAI Council as the Defence Forces Football Association representative and, more recently, as a representative of Football For All.

During his time with the FAI he has worked with Brian Kerr and Packie Bonner as a member of the Technical Development Plan Group and, from his base on the Football Development Committee, joined forces with Eoin Hand and others in ensuring scouting regulations were enshrined in the rule book.

But, long regarded as a critic of the old regime, he was always acutely aware of what he describes as “difficulty in getting things over the line” and committees which “became talking shops and didn’t achieve a lot”.

Ask him what he feels was at the heart of what went so badly wrong for the FAI and he points to the growth of a culture which left too many people feeling disenfranchised.

“That was at the heart of it — that culture. And I didn’t buy into that culture. People who felt they weren’t on the right side of the tracks would go back to their constituencies and say, ‘I won’t bother with Merrion Square or Abbotstown’. They just didn’t want the bother of it. Because I knew I was representing a smaller affiliate, I never really got into the politics of the place and instead concentrated on my own patch. I would have highlighted my concerns to the Defence Forces at various stages — be it about vote change or rule change or whatever — but I couldn’t say what I wanted to say because I represented the Defence Forces and, by extension, the Department of Defence and the government.

“But I would have seen other people feeling disenfranchised and that seemed to grow. A lot of people would say: ‘Why get involved? I’m not going to get on this or that committee.’ I think the election last year between myself and Paul Cooke was the first time there were hands in the air for Vice President or President in 10 or 12 years.”

For all that he had his concerns, McAnaney says that he was “shocked” by the full extent of the Association’s problems as they have been revealed since last March. But now he wants to focus on the future and doing what he can to help restore trust in the organisation.

“Hopefully it’s going to be hugely different now and you can see it already with the interim CEOs Niall (Quinn) and Gary (Owens), the independent directors and the Board. I’ve only been to a couple of Board meetings at this stage but it’s hugely positive coming from a very dark place. Now we have a few quid and a roadmap and hopefully that will get us out the far side.

But it’s going to be crazy hard work. It’s not like we’ve been given a pot of money; we’re going to have to tick boxes as we go along. But what I will say to you is that the Board of the FAI is determined to see this project through. Because there is no other way. There are still three or four reports to come, and I don’t know what they will bring out, but I know that the Board and the people who run the organisation in here are determined to get it right.

While it’s possible that a change of government could change the picture, as things currently stand McAnaney will only have until July to make a difference at the top. The Memorandum of Understanding, which underpins the recent rescue package for the FAI, makes it clear that, to comply with the government’s intensified demands for reform, the new President — as a veteran with more than 10 years on the Council behind him —would be prohibited from standing for re-election in the summer.

“We’re going to abide by that, we have to,” he says. “First of all, MOU or no MOU, my term – and the term of the Board – ends in July anyway. I was fully aware that the terms under which I applied were for the remainder of the Presidency of Donal Conway, which is the end of July. And that’s what I’m focused on. We’ll stick to the terms of the MOU. If it’s there in black and white, I’m not going to try to change it.

“Anyway, it’s not about me, it’s about doing the right thing for football. And we will do the right thing. Look at the huge numbers who play our sport. It’s not about Gerry McAnaney getting six months or two years or getting a gig. It’s about doing the right thing and being seen to do that: managing our business properly and managing our change properly.

“And doing everything we can do to get this show back on the road.”

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