Saturday 3 December 2016

Daniel McDonnell on FAI and life-long supporters: From best fans in the world to a bag search in Belgrade

Special bond between FAI and life-long supporters replaced by distrust and disharmony

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

FAI chief John Delaney Photo: Sportsfile
FAI chief John Delaney Photo: Sportsfile

The five-year anniversary of the miracle of Moscow passed last Tuesday. Five eventful years. Richard Dunne smiled on a visit to Dublin when he was asked to recall his memories.

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"It was actually my niece's debs the same night so she said I was trying to take the limelight off her!" he grinned.

Dunne's heroics were the reason for the Irish celebrations after the final whistle in the Luzhniki Stadium on that epic evening.

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Glance through Sportsfile's gallery from that scoreless draw and he is the most photographed man, even if the snappers struggled to catch a smile. He was just doing his job and never sought the limelight.

John Delaney was also on the pitch at the final whistle, greeting the fans before throwing a tie into the crowd. Pictures show that the travelling Irish fans were happy to see him. Spirits were high.

This was normal in that campaign. We became accustomed to the FAI CEO approaching the away end at the final whistle to show his appreciation. His applause was reciprocated.

YouTube contains the evidence. There's a fine clip from two months later as Delaney comes to the Irish section in Tallinn after the 4-0 play-off triumph which effectively ensured that Ireland would be participating in Euro 2012.

The clip on YouTube is titled 'Laughing at John Delaney's celebrations', and certainly there is plenty of laughter from the stands audible during the minute-long video.

But it's indisputable that sections of the support were lapping it all up, waving their tricolours and belting out a few bars of 'Ole Ole' as the country's top football official imitated Damien Duff's respectful bow celebration from the 2002 World Cup.

Eventually, he retreats and trots towards the sideline with a joyous fist pump. Exit stage left.

It truly was a remarkable time. Perhaps we didn't quite appreciate it all when it was going on, the bond that appeared to exist between the FAI and the fans that followed the team on a campaign where they really racked up the air miles.

Armenia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Russia, Andorra and Estonia. Ireland took the scenic route to Poland.

The good vibes were caught on camera. Takwe Moscow, for example. YouTube still carries the pre-match shindig in an Irish bar where Delaney and Ray Houghton fraternised with the away fans.

Chorus

Delaney leads the room in a chorus of 'Oh Trapattoni, he used to be Italian but he's Irish now'.

Houghton then takes the microphone. "John Delaney, to me, epitomises what the FAI is about today," he says, to loud cheers. "John wants to be around the Irish fans to enjoy nights like tonight."

The anniversary of Moscow - September 6 - clashed with the trip home from Belgrade for the majority of the Irish fans who ventured to the opening World Cup 2016 qualifier.

A substantial posse passed through Frankfurt, where a discussion point was the searches that a couple of supporters had undergone when they entered the Red Star Stadium.

Zeno Kelly and Tommy Shields went public to outline their dissatisfaction at being stopped entering the match by Serbian security, who were accompanied by an FAI official. Their bags were examined.

They feel that the delay entering the ground was born from a determination to establish whether they had a banner that was critical of Delaney in their possession.

The image of a flag in a Belgrade bar which referenced the CEO's problem child description of the League of Ireland (the actual term used was "difficult child") was circulated on social media by Kelly. The hashtag #DelaneyOut featured. Kelly did not bring it to the match venue.

The FAI did not comment when the story gained traction. Kelly and Shields appeared on Liveline.

"There was a member of the FAI staff who went through my bag and looked at my flag," said Shields, who was carrying his regular Galway United flag.

"They wanted to see what was written on it. I'm going to Ireland games since 1973 and hardly missed any away games since 1988 and I've never been searched by a member of FAI staff going into a foreign ground."

He added that he had never carried a protest flag.

Joe Duffy's response was straightforward. "What's wrong with bringing a protest flag?" he said.

It is a fairly basic point, yet it appears to be a recurring issue around Ireland international games.

The ticketing arrangements for the away match in Scotland in November 2014 resulted in an escalation of tensions between the FAI hierarchy and aggrieved die-hards.

When the Aviva Stadium opened, the new singing section in the South Stand was the one portion of the renovated venue which was always lively. Go to an Ireland match now and it's noticeable that the area behind the goal is populated by a considerable number of hi-vis security jackets.

Of course, the FAI will point out that an area where supporters occasionally like to stand and congregate closely together requires monitoring. But the overall level of security has left an uncomfortable taste. And what of Duffy's instinctive observation? What does it matter if fans want to protest?

Much water has passed under the bridge since the raucous road to Euro 2012.

As ever, supporters hold a range of opinions about the performance of the FAI top brass.

It's true that some of those who cheered the loudest now hold a radically different opinion. It's also correct to point out that a contingent of regular matchgoers would strongly disagree with criticism of Delaney's tenure.

Puzzling

At this stage, no banner is going to sway opinions either way. But seeking to prevent those banners from seeing the light of day does send out a puzzling message.

We are coming off the back of the summer where green shirted fans were again hailed as the best in the world. The good skins that went to Paris to serenade nuns, fix spare tyres and fill the streets with cheer were acclaimed around the continent.

Therefore, it's extremely unusual that for the next competitive game - in an awkward location - the chief fan-related story paints a picture of distrust and disharmony.

One would assume that the punters who dig into their pockets for an unglamorous trip would be a central part of a happy football family.

We've come a long way from Moscow alright, and it's only fair to pose the question.

Just what is the FAI about today?

Irish Independent

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