Owens makes case for six-a-side and brighter future for FAI

Owens makes case for six-a-side and brighter future for FAI
FAI Interim Chief Executive Gary Owens during the FAI Board Press Conference at FAI Headquarters in Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

FAI interim CEO, Gary Owens, believes the reward for pushing through with governance reforms that include the appointment of six independent directors to the board is huge and that the association should strive to become a €100m business once it's house is finally in order.

Football in Ireland finds itself at a crossroads this month. Another one.

An EGM on August 31st, called for by the FAI National Council, will decide on whether or not to approve the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with the government and Bank of Ireland last January and which saved the sporting body from financial meltdown.

The most contentious of these reforms is the agreement that the board will include six directors from within football and another half-dozen independents. James Kelly of the Leinster FA has termed this a ticking time bomb and a threat to the FAI's sovereignty.

That was countered yesterday by Niall Quinn, the interim CEO, who said there was no “coup” in train here. Quinn and Owens insisted again that sovereignty would remain with the AGM which would remain the final arbiter on all things.

The pair spoke to the media for over two hours on this and other crucial matters yesterday. Owens stressed how the association was in state of chaos and hysteria when the Memorandum was sought and signed and insisted it is not an “onerous” deal.

There was talk of how independent directors add to an organisation's skillset. There was also a reminder that this has the backing of Uefa and Fifa and Sport Ireland, as well as the government and Bank of Ireland. And that there is “no Plan B”.

The Casting Vote

Maybe the most telling point was the discussion on who has the casting vote in the board. Roy Barrett, the independent chairperson, has that status now but this is by no means a situation that has to hold in perpetuity. 

It was actually held by the FAI president until last year.

“This is another misunderstanding,” said Owens. “The casting vote is not a requirement of the MoU and it is not a requirement of any stakeholder. What is in the constitution was put there last year and was done by last year's AGM. They can actually [change it] as they see fit.”

How it took this long to make that message public is a mystery but other confusion remains, not least how the stipulation in the MoU declaring a limit of ten years for anyone serving on the Council has been tweaked.

The FAI will instead follow Fifa's electoral process which demands that candidates for Council or committees should pass a fit and proper test, demonstrate that they have no conflicting interests and provide a skillset required for the role.

How this could be changed and not the terms concerning directors was not fully explained. "It’s the way we’re interpreting it," said Owens. "We’ll find the words that we’ll give you around that but broadly speaking that’s the principle.”

Subservient Role

There is another perception in this given the Council's subservient role during the John Delaney era. The same could be said for the reappointment recently of Rea Walsh, who held key governance roles under Delaney, as chief operating officer.

Walshe has also received payment from Delaney for legal services carried out, which was in breach of Law Society guidelines, but Owens defended the appointment and the process itself which was limited to internal candidates.

He accepted that Walshe's reappointment could damage the body's public perception but claimed that the decision to appoint from within was crucial to motivate a team badly affected by the association's ills and stressed that was Walshe is a fitting occupant of the role.

“In Rhea’s case she’s an exceptional talent,” he explained. “She was on her own in the last 12 months under extreme pressure. She was naive, and she would accept she was naive, in relation to the support she gave John (Delaney) in the past. We’ve had that conversation.”

Owens also addressed the confusion over Stephen Kenny's apparent promotion to the FAI executive team, though not satisfactorily, stating that the Republic of Ireland manager is free to sit in on any meetings he wishes and that the move was made to bring the football and administrative sides closer together.

It all made for a long and winding afternoon.

Barrett spelled out the disastrous consequences ahead if the EGM fails to give the green light to the reforms as required by the MoU in a letter to Council members on Tuesday night. Insolvency, staff losses, loss of shares in the Aviva were just some of them.

Owens touched on some of those too but turned the table by pointing out what could lie ahead for the FAI and for Irish football if unity is found, the reforms agreed and the association can finally stop looking inward and look to the future instead.

“We have done a lot of damage. When you sit down and talk to sponsors around investing money in our game, it's really hard to convince them ... That's why I just keep challenging: why is what we did in the past good enough?

“We should be a €100m business. We should be investing in grassroots and have much better facilities than everybody else but we don't have that because we don't have the competencies and skills on the non-football side to drive that forward in the way we should.”

His take is that one six-a-side can go a long way to changing all that.

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