independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Bureaucratic wrangling and inherent politicking scupper plans and leave FAI blazers with the home they deserve

IT was introduced in a blaze of publicity in January of 1999 as the future 'spiritual home' of Irish football but what would subsequently be known as eircom Park was never to be.

Instead, eight years later, Ireland play their home internationals in the spiritual home of the GAA while waiting for the reconstruction of the spiritual home of rugby to be completed.

Should the new Lansdowne Road be delivered by the end of 2009 then it will represent the culmination of a decade of high drama in relation to the lodgings of the Boys in Green.

Eircom Park was planned as a 45,000-seater stadium in Citywest with a cost of 65 million punts but, from the outset, there was opposition within the FAI to the project which was regarded as the baby of then chief executive Bernard O'Byrne.

In the background, the-then relatively new Fianna Fail government were watching proceedings with interest as their own brainchild was the Sports Campus Ireland in Abbotstown or, as it widely became known in an eponymous tribute to the Taoiseach, the 'Bertie Bowl'.

Ahern himself presented his feasibility study for the Abbotstown stadium in January of 2000 with an open invitation to the FAI as tenants but O'Byrne -- backed by the board of management -- insists that they should go their way with eircom Park.

Alas, the project hit the rocks due to a variety of problems. Planning problems and costing issues meant that the completion date was pushed back from 2001 to 2003.

Doubts

And doubts were being raised about the possibility of staging 57 non-sporting events a year at the stadium which was central to its evolution.

More pertinently, dissent within the FAI was growing rapidly. Then treasurer Brendan Menton, backed strongly by John Delaney, queried the rising costs and even threatened legal action against the association due to his claims that he wasn't being kept in the loop with regard to updates.

Financially, the government were dangling carrots on a regular basis, with offers made to the League of Ireland clubs in return for opposing the eircom Park project. In early 2001, as O'Byrne's tenure became increasingly unstable, the government announced a €45m deal for Irish soccer if the FAI abandoned their plans for their own stadium and weighed in with the Bertie Bowl.

With concerns about finance a central tenet for every level of football in the country, it was an offer that was deemed too good to refuse.

Particularly as it emerged that the eircom Park project needed to find a significant investor if it was to proceed.

Opponents, such as Menton and Delaney, argued that the FAI faced a sustained period of virtual bankruptcy if they stuck with the Eircom Park project.

Eventually, the FAI voted to abandon eircom Park with O'Byrne relinquishing his post after admitting to 'inadvertent mis-allocations' of personal expenses on an FAI credit card.

The stage, it seemed, was set for the Bertie Bowl to gain momentum but that never happened. While the FAI stumbled from one coup d'etat to the next, the Abbotstown proposal could never quite get off the ground.

By late 2002, the prospect of public funds being used to build the Bertie Bowl and reward Irish soccer for ditching eircom Park had evaporated with Fianna Fail's coalition partners the Progressive Democrats -- led by Mary Harney -- key figures in the anti-Abbotstown campaign.

Ireland's hopes of joint-hosting the 2008 European Championships with Scotland were embarrassingly ended amid the chaos.

Renovated

Eventually, it became clear that the only path forward was for Lansdowne Road to be renovated with the FAI and the IRFU both chipping in along with the government.

In September 2004, the Lansdowne Road Stadium Development Company was set up to oversee developments.

In the interim, the GAA made their historic decision to open the doors of Croke Park to both codes while the Ballsbridge venue let the builders in and that's where the situation currently stands.

Now, it's envisaged that the new Lansdowne Road will be completed by the end of 2009 with competitive games scheduled to take place there in 2010.

And what of Abbotstown?

Well, the stadium plans there may have been aborted but the establishment of a sports campus has pressed on with top-class training facilities for a variety of sports, including soccer, to be established alongside the National Aquatic Centre.

Amongst the tenants will be the FAI, who will soon move from their antiquated headquarters in Merrion Square to take up office in Dublin 15.

Fittingly, perhaps, a protracted process that started off with the aim of a spiritual home will conclude with the delivery of a bureaucratic one.

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