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Tuesday 16 September 2014

'Fans carried me head-high home. Now if that's a crime, I'm not guilty. Trust me'

Dion Fanning

Published 24/06/2012 | 05:00

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John Delaney with Dion Fanning: 'Anyone who thinks that I would have lost my vision or my drive is misplaced because there's not a moment of my day that I'm not thinking of how we can better Irish football, not a moment of my day.'
John Delaney

I've always got on well with John Delaney. Even most of his enemies would acknowledge his ability and his intelligence. Many of them have had no choice but to concede that he has exceptional political cunning. Yet Ireland's hopeless European Championships was defined in part by the images of Delaney being hoisted onto the shoulders of fans or drunkenly 'interacting' with them in Sopot.

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He agreed last week to talk to the Sunday Independent about every aspect of Ireland's time in Poland and his years as CEO. In a room in the Clarion Hotel at Dublin Airport on Friday afternoon, he was waiting for me with two ring binders. "The story of the trip," he said. The folders contained the paperwork that ensured there was no Saipan in 2012.

This was the image he wanted to project -- the strong, confident, tough leader. But this was not 'the story of the trip'. For Ireland, it was failure and for Delaney, he will be remembered for the images of his late nights, not his early-morning meetings.

When the interview dealt with these matters, as he had been told it would, it became more uncomfortable. There were repeated stoppages, some false starts and it limped to a hostile end. By that stage, his communications adviser Peter Sherrard -- who had reservations about him doing the interview -- was sitting slumped in his chair.

I'm not sure I get on well with John Delaney anymore. "You were right, Peter," Delaney said as he left. "I'm not often wrong," he said as he walked out. "But I was wrong about this."

Dion Fanning: After the Euros, do you intend to instigate a review into the whole structure of Irish football?

John Delaney: I'm surprised by the question really because we've been reviewing Irish football at all levels since I took over. We've had amateur reviews, underage reviews, League Of Ireland reviews, every piece of the game has been reviewed.

The whole ethos of the association is continuous improvement. So we're reviewing each part of the game at any given stage but I don't think because of the Euros you decide to have an overhaul of the organisation or anything like that.

You don't think there's anything in particular that the European Championships have highlighted?

No, because we have the emerging talent programme, which is something that wasn't in place when I became chief executive, which is emerging talent squads being continuously assessed all around the country. To give you the number, that's 3,500 kids at league centres annually, the best against the best. And there's maybe 700 kids at regional level who are brought out of the league centres, the best against the best. So we are continuously appraising the best talent in this country and I think the structures we've put in place over the last number of years will produce better players over a longer period of time because in the past, if you go back to maybe previous FAI regimes, it was very much the players were picked from Dublin and if there was a good kid from Cork or a good 'keeper from

Donegal, that's the way it was done. Now if you're good enough you'll get into a league squad, you'll then get to a regional squad, you'll get to an underage international squad. We've also brought in an under 19 national league so the best kids play at that. Ultimately, we all know our best players go abroad to play in England or in Scotland.

Would you like to be able to put more money into those areas?

Well, everybody would want that. You could say that to a Sunday newspaper, you could say that to any business or any sporting body in Ireland, but you have to cut your cloth to suit your measure, particularly in the economy we live in at the moment.

What makes you think Trapattoni can build a new team when he is so resistant to change?

The first thing I'll say to you is that before Trapattoni came in we hadn't qualified for a major tournament in, say, six years and a Euros in 24; now, do the maths, whatever way you want to do it. He's met his objectives for us. He was a third seed for the World Cup qualifiers and he finished second, we were very unfortunate in Paris, we know all about that. The second time round, we qualified through a play-off and we were third seeds as well and we got to a major tournament for the first time in ten years and the Euros for the first time in 24. So he achieved his objectives with us. I think he will reflect on the tournament.

I think he accepts that mistakes were made. He accepts that. We will sit down and review all aspects of the tournament, including the football side. Like any good manager, and he's proved that over a long period of time, he'll learn from the Euros.

Any circumstance in which you'd consider dismissing him?

Absolutely not. Last November when we qualified, the board were unanimous in terms of re-appointing him, the mood of the public was certainly that way as well. I think he hasn't become a bad manager because of the Euros, he's been a good manager and proved that all the way through his career. His objective now will be to get the Irish team to the World Cup in Brazil.

And if it looks like that won't happen, with bad results early on, would you change your position?

I'm not going to look into the future. He's got a contract with us, he's met his objectives in the past with us and, please God, he'll do the same for Brazil.

Are there financial implications for the FAI from Ireland's failure to claim a single point?

There were certainly financial incentives. There was a million euros for a win, half a million for a draw. A million if we finished third in the group, two million if we got to the quarter-finals and we didn't get any of those so naturally there is a disappointment financially from the tournament, that we didn't get any added revenues from the tournament having participated it.

People, as a consequence, are worried there will be more redundancies within the FAI -- will there be?

That's a matter for the board. Like any other business in Ireland, we're all looking at our cost base, every business is looking at its cost base, every single business, so we'll look at that. But that's not something that I think is for today.

But it is something that will be discussed at board level?

No, like any business, like any business in Ireland, everyone is looking at their cost base. That applies to a Sunday newspaper, that applies to a football association, that applies to every industry in this country.

Does it apply more after failing to get a single point?

I wouldn't say that, I wouldn't say that.

On your very first day in the job you said that you would bring the FAI "back to basics, back to the development of the game around the country". Do you stand by that, do you think that has been achieved?

I think that's unquestionable really. I don't think anyone would question that. I've visited well over a thousand clubs around the country over the last seven or eight years. My weekends are packed with meeting clubs, hearing feedback, talking to them about issues that exist at grassroots level. And during that period it's well acknowledged that the infrastructure and improvement of the clubs through the Sports Capital Grants programme, the monies that the clubs have raised themselves and the money that the FAI have contributed directly.

The emerging talent programme is our elite programme that was never there prior to my time. I could talk endlessly I suppose about the work we've done at grassroots level because if you build the house, you build the foundations first, the chimney at the top is international football. We, I, the association have spent a lot of time investing in development officers around the country and a lot of my own personal time ensuring we connect to the grassroots.

But do development officers have anything to do with elite development?

Yes they do at league centres and at regional centres.

People around the country will say the development officers have been cut back?

No, not the development officers, a lot of them are co-funded with local authorities.

They help elite development?

Well, it's a link. If you think of the time before I took over, there were very few development officers in each county. They are a link. The football family now has a connection to a development officer who works in the clubs with them, works on the coaching qualifications with them, we have over 30,000 coaches. If you think about it, in every region, or in most regions, there is a development officer who connects to the club and they haven't been cut back because most of them are co-funded with local authorities.

Are the clubs able to nurture young talent?

We have an underage review. We've done an underage review, I'm working very closely with schoolboys' football on that. I'm a firm believer that there should be less competition and more touches. When I played as a young lad at St Michael's, if you were a right-back you were told 'knock it long, son'. Now it should be more about flexibility, being able to play a number of different positions. It should be about less competition and more enjoyment earlier in your career. That's something in the underage review, which we're working with schoolboys' football through the underage committee. We were working through those principles for change, for further change.

Will Wim Koevermans be replaced or will somebody within the association merely take on his responsibilities?

Oh no, Wim will be replaced. Wim did his four-year contract with us. He had an aspiration I think to manage a national A team and he's got that job in India. He fulfilled his four-year contract with us, he did a good job, no doubt he did a good job. He worked on the coaching education, he worked on the emerging talent programme, he worked with our senior manager and our underage managers as well so, he'll be replaced for sure.

And it won't just be someone within the association taking on more responsibilities?

No, God it won't. Now, that doesn't mean somebody within the association isn't going to apply for the job. I'm not going to say to anybody working for the FAI, 'You can't apply for the job,' because I'm sure people have aspirations for that role. But if somebody from the association got it -- I'm not saying somebody will. I think it's most likely to be an external appointment, but I wouldn't deter anyone from within the association from applying for it. If that person got it, then the person who got Wim's role would be replaced.

Is what happened to Monaghan United a sign of the crisis in domestic football?

We've made great progress with the league. We took over a league where the collective losses when we took over were €7 million and last year the collective losses were €140,000. Half the clubs are in profit. But a Monaghan United is not . . . again, you've got to talk about Ireland, what's happening in this country in the moment. This country has gone through a most difficult position the last four or five years and like any auctioneer's business, like any butcher's business, retail shops, you name any other industry, there are casualties in business. Monaghan was one example of that recently but the figures prove that the clubs are in a better financial state than when we took them over.

Is the progress as quick as I would like? No, but it's certainly better and the performance of Shamrock Rovers last year in the Europa League is a good example of a how a club can perform in Europe and can get good attendances once they have a proper facility to play on.

Somebody said to me last week that when you took over you had a vision as CEO and he wondered if you still had one. In specifics, he thought that the debt on the Aviva had taken so much of your time and energy that you'd lost the vision.

I think that's misplaced. Who was the somebody? Was it you? [laughs]. There's always a somebody.

Look, the breadth of this job, Dion, is something that people close to me or people close to football understand. The breadth of it. You go back eight years ago to when I took it over. My objectives were very simple -- get the FAI a stadium, which we have with the IRFU, which we never had; develop the grassroots; get closer within UEFA, we're well placed within UEFA; our relationships with FIFA are much better, I think Blatter at long last is advocating change; get strong sponsorship contracts in place which I've done; get close to the supporters because that's important because they're the fulcrum of the international team. There's a whole range -- get close to local authorities, get close to government, because there's a whole range of stakeholders.

Anyone who thinks that I would have lost my vision or my drive is misplaced because there's not a moment of my day that I'm not thinking of how we can better Irish football, not a moment of my day. And I've got a very strong board behind me, and I've got a very strong executive team behind me. We've also learned from our interactions with UEFA how to specialise ourselves in particular parts of the game. Because when we want to develop women's football, you go to Norway and you see what do they do. Out of that then, you bring it back and you put an Irish stamp on it.

Does the debt that the association has incurred keep you awake at night?

No, I'm someone who sleeps easily normally, to be honest with you. But there's not a day I don't wake up thinking, 'Listen, what can we do today to improve Irish football'.

To talk about the debt of the Aviva is, you know, we had to find €95 million for that stadium, 95 million, and we owe €50 million to our funding partners on that. And that will be clear by 2020.

What's been difficult for everyone in this country has been the recession that came. We were getting huge crowds at Croke Park when the team wasn't playing particularly well and not achieving results -- the one thing that's very difficult to predict in this economy now is revenue for matches and that applies to all sporting codes and that applies to concerts that are also held in this country.

Do you regret the way you tried to fund it?

No. Because I think getting €191 million from the government was a huge part of it. We got external advice in terms of the Vantage seat scheme and we made the best of it, which we had to do, and we'll be out of debt by 2020 because there's the resale of further ten-year tickets in 2014, there's HatTrick money from UEFA, there's an expanded 24 teams from 2016 to the Euros, there's the resale of naming rights and Vantage seats in 2020 and there's the TV money, the €40 million separate TV deal that we did with UEFA.

So there's a whole range of things that are coming in our favour over the course of time. I'm delighted we built the stadium because there will be revenues for the association, once that debt is cleared, for many, many more years to come.

How many of the ten-year tickets sold on direct debit have been cancelled?

That's confidential. I'm not going to go through on that, you know, but that's something that's confidential to the association.

But would it be a disappointment to you that some have been cancelled?

Not many as far as I'm aware of, but certainly I'm not going to get into figures today. I think that's unfair.

The other perception is that you're untouchable within the association. What would your response be?

When I took over the association, there was a lot of instability in the organisation, there were many people speaking on behalf of the association. When I became chief executive, I now speak on behalf of the organisation. But anybody with any great degree of intelligence should look at it and see -- there's a board of ten, we've long discussion at board meetings. There's a strong executive, who put positions to me. I listen very strongly, listen very strongly. There have been decisions made over the course of the eight years which I didn't agree with it but it's my job to implement it then. So I think, to my mind, it's an easy thing to say but it's not the reality of the organisation. It certainly isn't the way it works and anybody who is close to the hub of it, who is open to looking at how we run it, there's a good corporate governance in place. Behind that, you've got a council and you've got an AGM.

Why then have the FAI lost so many talented people in recent years, people like Packie Bonner for example?

Well, in Packie's case we had an international performance director in Wim Koevermans and a technical director in Packie Bonner. There wasn't another organisation in UEFA who had both those posts.

After the Genesis report, we had to bring in an international performance director and it's something that we did for a good number of years but because of cutbacks we had to implement it was a luxury we couldn't afford, having two high-profile people, when no other organisation that I'm aware of had such a combination.

You didn't view Packie as a threat?

Absolutely not. I mean, I don't think. In my position, you're appointed by the board and you do your job and the day you're looking over your back, there was enough of that in the association. It's about how you develop the organisation and you trade off your own strengths.

How much is left to pay to Ticketus under the terms of the deal?

Those matters are confidential. You know that when you ask the question that I wouldn't answer that.

But there was €19 million to begin with?

Listen, there's nothing of that order, nor will I even get into that because those matters are confidential and you know that, Dion.

On the record, the FAI have said there's €900,000 owing?

I'm not going to discuss it here today, absolutely not.

But you can confirm the €900,000?

That's what was issued at the time by Peter [Sherrard] and the Communication Department but I'm certainly not going to get into that today. Absolutely not.

Why not?

Because it's confidential to the board and confidential to an external funding partner.

You're happy with the arrangement?

Absolutely, yeah.

Is your salary something that has to be addressed again?

Well, prior to taking the role I was a volunteer. I put a lot of money into Waterford United football club as did my father in the past. Before I took the role, I was paid more than I'm paid now. I've been offered jobs since I've taken this role, I haven't taken it. I know I'm paid well, I accept that. I work very hard for that. Most people would accept that -- it's 24/7. I signed a contract that was put in front of me. I took a wage reduction in the past. If I had to do it again, I'd do it in the future.

But would you volunteer one?

If I have to take a wage cut in the future, I'll take it, simple as that.

Do you think Roy Keane has a point when he says Ireland have to change their win, draw or lose we're on the booze philosophy?

I think every team that's prepared by Trapattoni and every one of those players that played in the Euros wanted to achieve in every single way. I was with them for 33 days in total I think from the 17th May -- bar being away at the FIFA congress -- all the way through to when they came home. The players and the management were devastated by the performances that eventualised at the Euros. So anybody who suggests that the team and the management went out not to succeed, not to achieve, again would be misplaced.

Did the Irish fans drink too much?

I think the Irish fans had a good time, I think they were well-behaved, I think they were a credit to their country. That's the feedback that everybody in Poland gave, that UEFA gave and I've asked UEFA to consider giving them an award given their exceptional behaviour.

The TD Aodhán ó Riordáin has accused you of a lack of leadership on this issue?

That's his opinion, I don't subscribe to it. That's his opinion.

Do you see where he's coming from?

Not really. I think one of the greatest stakeholders we have is the interaction with the supporters. I helped them in many, many ways, be it through tickets. One guy wanted a battery charger for his phone, other guys lost passports. When I meet them some of them look for signed jerseys for charity.

The interaction with supporters has been more than helpful. The supporters like it. It's well known I'm close to the Irish supporters. Certainly I'll continue to interact with the Irish supporters going forward.

On your first day in the job you also said, "You probably won't find me out on the pitch. It's a matter of style. Going out on the pitch is not something I intend to do". What changed?

That would be in terms of going out before the game. I won't go out shaking the hands of the players, that's something I see as the president's role.

Going on to the pitch afterwards is a different thing?

It is certainly -- that's to thank the supporters. I don't see the ceremonial duty as something I should do. On occasion I've gone out to thank the supporters because they spent a lot of money following Ireland around the world and I think that should be recognised on occasion, Dion, I really do.

John, if pictures appeared on Facebook of an FAI employee looking as dishevelled as you did in Sopot while on a work trip, would you consider it your duty to talk to them?

The most important thing, Dion, and I said this to you over the phone -- I take kind of a grave offence to some of those criticisms, because I set out seven months ago when we qualified with my professional team to ensure that there was not going to be a repeat of Saipan, that the shadow of Saipan would leave the association and that's been achieved. Every morning we had a meeting at 9.0am when we were away in Montecatini, in Hungary and in Poland. We did our stuff really well. I met with Robbie Keane and Trapattoni every three or four days and we went through all the issues. We worked very, very hard. And if I had a night out, with family, my sister was over there, my brother-in-law and some friends, I think that's something I'm entitled to do on the odd occasion when I'm there. I've seen journalists more than dishevelled on occasions and I've seen people who believe they have a more credible life a lot more dishevelled. What happened one evening on the way home to the hotel was a couple of hundred fans raised me up in the air and they carried me head-high home. Now if that's a crime, I'm not guilty. Trust me.

Does that image not undo all the work you have done?

Not at all. Because from my perspective and from anybody who has been involved in ensuring there's no administrative error, the association has come out from an administrative perspective, the second team as I call it, the team behind the team. We've come out very well out of the Euros because we've got to a tournament and organised -- when you see the folders there of all the work that had to be done -- we've organised a tournament that was pretty faultless administratively and that's the key role and that's what we've achieved.

Has anyone from the FAI or the management talked to you about your socialising in Sopot?

Absolutely not, absolutely not.

What would your reaction be?

I'd discuss it with them but they have not.

[He then went off the record. The interview resumed shortly afterwards.]

What's your reaction when you see the pictures that appear of you?

I won't answer that.

You won't answer?

No, no. I've answered you enough on those questions so I want them stopped now and on you go with the rest of your questions. I've answered enough on that, I'm not answering any further ones on those nights. I've spoken about it at length, that's it. Move on to the rest of your questions.

You say you were entitled to a night out . . .

Dion, I'm not going to answer them.

[We go off the record and discuss what he will answer. We try again but immediately we have to stop as he says we go off the record. After another discussion, we finish up.]

Do you still think you're the right man to lead the FAI after everything that's happened this summer?

Of course I do but, more importantly, the board do. The stakeholders that are close to the association do. That's the most important thing.

The sports editor of The Guardian this week described you as a 'clown'.

I wasn't aware of that but other people will describe you as someone who has brought the association to professional status. That's been said to me many, many, many times. If that's an individual's opinion, fine but I think there are a lot better opinions out there, a lot more positive opinions if you look at the FAI before I took it over to where it is today. There's no doubt that it has changed hugely and that's come with a supportive board and a very strong executive and I think strong leadership.

Do you want to nail the lie that your shoes were stolen in Sopot?

What happened that night, it's a bit of folklore, a bit of fun. I'm coming home, 200 lads see me, they lift me up and they carry me up and lift me head-high to my hotel and they sing 'Shoes off for the Boys in Green.' And they handed me my shoes back and they handed me my socks back. Simple as that.

The interview ended then.

Afterwards, he told me he was disappointed in me. I figured that if we had reached the expressions of disappointment stage of the day, I would tell him that I was disappointed he hadn't answered all the questions.

We shook hands and he left the Clarion shortly afterwards, carrying out in his arms the folders he had carried in to show me all the FAI achieved while they were in Poland.

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