Sunday 30 April 2017

Delaney breathes sigh of relief

FAI chief executive a gambler who got all the breaks just when he needed them most, writes John O'Brien

THE grin that creased John Delaney's face when the Euro 2012 play-off draw was made last month betrayed a man for whom subtlety isn't among his most obvious virtues. But you could almost see where he was coming from. The FAI's chief executive badly needed a break. His beleaguered manager Giovanni Trapattoni needed one too. Heck, the country needed it. And in Kracow that day they knew they had got it.

This European Championship qualifying campaign the breaks have kept on coming. The unlikely point snatched in Moscow. Slovakia's shock 4-0 home defeat the same night. The unfair sending-off and cruel own-goal against Armenia. And, then, Zbigniew Boniek plucking Estonia out of the hat in Poland. All our perceived past grievances -- Belgium in 1981, Turkey 1999, France 2009 -- partly erased in one fell swoop.

It's difficult to think of a more must-win game in the nation's history. At other times we might have willed it just as much. And other Ireland teams had stood several times on the same precipice. Yet none had faced their destiny against a backdrop of crippling recession and reports of senior figures being made redundant within the FAI. The consequences of failure were too grim to contemplate.

Think of the gloom that would have been cast. The €8m the FAI would have netted from appearing in the finals gone in a puff of smoke. There would be gratuitous references to the €50m debt incurred over the rebuilding of Lansdowne Road while Delaney and the FAI's bloated media department went into overdrive at the blatant negativity of the coverage. Mercifully we have been spared all that.

With qualification all but assured, Delaney might be the most relieved man in Ireland right now, except he doesn't really work that way. Failure against Estonia might have done for Trapattoni but Delaney's position was virtually impregnable. Few are more adept at walking away from scraps with barely a crease in their suit. Let's face it. Anyone who could emerge unscathed from the disastrous appointment of Steve Staunton can survive anything.

Delaney is essentially a gambler. He gambled on a rookie manager in Staunton and lost. He gambled on making a killing on premium seats at Lansdowne Road and lost spectacularly. And then he gambled on Trapattoni, a great but ageing manager, who came with a €2m price tag. Although half of that was paid by the businessman Denis O'Brien, it was still a splurge out of keeping with a small country like Ireland. Failure couldn't be an option.

So this time he spun the wheel and his number came up. Not the jackpot, but something close. And now it seems curmudgeonly to point out that there was something troubling about the nature of Ireland's progress. That for all the pleasure qualifying for Euro 2012 brought, the horrible football played along the way still leaves a slightly pungent aftertaste.

The RTE panel neatly captured this dilemma on Friday night. Where regularly they had been carping and critical, the panellists were now fulsome in their praise of the manager and the team and, as is his great gift, Bill O'Herlihy narrowed it down to a single question: "So at the end of the day, only the result matters?" To a great extent the answer is yes.

Maybe there's too much at stake nowadays to think we can play pleasing football and still hope to qualify. The lack of authority in home games is truly alarming but, with a 10-game unbeaten record to boast about, Trapattoni has instilled a fighting spirit that makes the old 'you'll never beat the Irish' refrain seem like wishful thinking in comparison.

Nor is it just about the cash. We don't recall the Jack Charlton years for the prettiness of the football, yet the players who came to fruition in Brian Kerr's great under-age teams of the late 1990s would have spent their formative years being inspired by the World Cups of 1990 and 1994. Most of the money earned in those years was squandered anyway. The legacy came in other forms.

But it still has to be paid for and 10-year gaps between finals makes things awkward. Under Delaney's tenure, staff levels at the FAI increased to outlandish proportions, and the 15 or so redundancies announced in the past 12 months were inevitable. A relatively small association with ambitious under-age and development programmes and a manager and chief executive who receive exceedingly generous salaries needs regular success to grease its wheels.

For now they can breathe a sigh of relief. They have €8m in the bank, more if Trapattoni can steer them to the knock-out stages. Beyond that, there's the €40m of television money between 2014 and 2018 without the traditional anxiety of drawing plum opposition in qualifying groups. Delaney's confident assertion that the FAI will be debt-free by 2020 looks slightly less ambitious now.

The winter seems that bit more bearable at least. Time to get giddy even. Eamon Dunphy spoke about the opportunity to blood new players and review playing tactics. Kerr talked about Ireland becoming a team that could retain the ball and build play from the back. Amazing how a bit of success makes wild optimists of us all.

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