Friday 18 October 2019

True cost of landing Trapattoni is the very integrity of Irish football

The acceptance of money by the FAI reveals how small-minded and petty the organisation still is, writes Daniel McConnell

Ahead of Steve Staunton's appointment, John Delaney, the FAI Chief Executive, used the words "world class manager". As we all know Staunton wasn't world class or anything near it, but his successor certainly is. However, his appointment is shamefully tarnished by a deal that has not only cheapened Irish football, but has brought the probing eyes of world soccer bosses upon our emerald isle.

While there is no doubting Giovanni Trapattoni's pedigree and his record, and while his appointment has excited the country's fans out of their five-year slump, the controversial subsidy by businessman Denis O'Brien has landed our perennially fumbling football association in hot water once again.

The Sunday Independent can exclusively reveal that FIFA is now investigating the FAI and its deal with O'Brien.

A spokesman for the global governing body of soccer told this newspaper on Friday that while at present it appears that the deal is not against the rules, FIFA are certainly demanding further answers from the FAI.

The spokesman said: "At present there appears to be no regulation to prevent the deal, but certainly we will be seeking further official details from the national organisation and we are investigating the matter. Beyond that I can not comment."

The manner of the O'Brien deal threw up questions over how the money would be administered, how much exactly he would hand over and what the tax consequences would be.

It had been suggested earlier in the week that O'Brien, a tax exile, would pay his half of Trapattoni's salary to him directly, to limit tax liability. But, the Sunday Independent can also reveal that O'Brien will hand over the money to the FAI, who will in turn pay the 68-year-old's salary.

As a contracted employee, as opposed to a full, member of staff, akin to many of the top stars in RTE, Trapattoni will then have to make his own tax settlement with the Government here and will not be subject to PAYE.

The whole saga began when Ireland drew with Cyprus at Croke Park on October 17, which all but killed our chances of European Championship qualification. It would, as we now know, be Steve Staunton's last game in charge. He was officially sacked six days later and the search began in earnest for the new manager.

However, we now know that between these two dates, the billionaire businessman O'Brien put in a call to John Delaney on Friday, October 19. He also sent a letter to Delaney saying he had a proposal for him.

On TV3, O'Brien said: "I was out with Eddie Jordan and Eddie said to me, look we need to get a decent manager, and I go to the matches with Eddie, and I was thinking about it, and Jesus wouldn't it be good to get someone top notch into the job." O'Brien and Delaney first met face to face in early November and O'Brien outlined his position.

In the immediate aftermath of Staunton's sacking, Terry Venables was the firm favourite to take over. Even the FAI seemed to be keen on him.

It is a legitimate question to ask, but did the mere presence of O'Brien's money lead to the cooling of interest in Venables? The 65-year-old had recently been sacked along with Steve McLaren from the England management set-up after they also failed to qualify, and was the early leader in terms of the betting. He was also the clear favourite of many of the players including the team captain-in-waiting Richard Dunne.

However, once O'Brien's money entered the fray, the sensitive souls in the FAI were unlikely to want to fight controversy on two fronts. Venables had been embroiled in a number of financial controversies back in the early-to-mid 1990s but was never charged with any offence.

There was a clear cooling from the idea of Venables from FAI HQ and in the end there were many within the organisation who would have preferred El Tel to have gone away long before last Wednesday.

Now we know that the presence of the O'Brien money was there, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that simply by being there it interfered with the process of selecting the manager.

It is also known for a fact that this time last month the job was Gerard Houllier's to turn down. While the three-man panel of Don Givens, Don Howe and Ray Houghton were set to recommend him, Delaney and at least two of the real three-man panel -- Giles, Dunphy and Brady -- were openly hesitant.

But it was at this time that Giovanni Trapattoni's name first was mentioned as a serious contender for the job. His name was added to the bookmakers list at the end of January, following anonymous calls to various exchanges. At the start of this month over €650,000 was traded by Betfair alone.

There were at least 13 different favourites for the Ireland job during the 113-day gap between Staunton's sacking and Trapattoni's appointment. Over €10m was traded on the position in total. Two days after Givens and Houghton dismissed reports they were looking at him, a frenzy of betting on him began in London. There were reports of several footballers returning a handsome profit on it. Had the information been leaked?

For their part, bookies here dismissed any talk of rogue betting on the Trap. Paddy Power said: "If there was insider betting going on, they made a bags of it. We did well out of this."

But it then emerged last Sunday that a "mystery benefactor" had offered to underwrite the manager's salary, while most papers had the race down to two people, Venables and Trapattoni.

Then came the news that the three-man panel had travelled east to meet with Trapattoni's people and it began to drip out that he had been offered the job and that there was tacit agreement.

There was a buzz in the air and the papers and broadcast media raced to declare that the former Italian manager and seven-time winner of the Serie A title was the new Ireland manager.

And so to Wednesday -- the announcement was due, but bizarrely Trapattoni wouldn't be in Dublin to meet the press. In typically farcical FAI tradition, the 68-year-old Opus Dei devotee stole Delaney's limelight by confirming he had accepted the job several hours before the scheduled press conference. The worst kept secret in world soccer was confirmed.

Then the FAI suits rolled out to big smiles at their conference in the new HQ at Abbotstown. Delaney, with O'Brien's press man James Morrissey in the room, told the assembled hacks that the businessman was the so-called mystery benefactor.

A curious situation was about to get even more curious.

Literally minutes after Delaney had made his announcement, on RTE Drivetime, O'Brien was waxing lyrical as to his motivation. Despite claims to the contrary on Thursday, it had all the hallmarks of a Public Relations set-up. Mary Wilson claimed the next day that they simply got lucky and managed to get him. Her ex-husband, RTE's soccer correspondent Tony O'Donoghue, on the Six One News called the payments "strange and irregular".

Delaney went on the same programme and stated clearly that O'Brien didn't contact him until November. Within hours, this statement was shown to be false, by O'Brien himself on Vincent Browne's programme on TV3.

Whether it was deliberate or not, O'Brien dropped the bombshell that, in fact, he had made contact with the FAI before and not after Staunton was sacked. Asked when he first made contact, he said: "Oh it would have been after, no around the time of Steve Staunton, even before Steve Staunton stepped down from the manager's job." Was that before he stepped down? O'Brien again stated: "Yes."

It was a revelation that would force the inevitable clarifications the following morning, but it represented another farce in Irish soccer.

In a statement to his radio station Newstalk, O'Brien's spokesman said the businessman rang John Delaney after the Cyprus match but Delaney did not return his call until after Staunton was sacked. Explaining why he made the approach, O'Brien admitted to TV3 that he had a feeling that Staunton was a dead man walking.

He said: "Well I think everybody did (feel a change was coming). I think the FAI, everybody, said we must set our sights a bit higher in terms of international experience.

"That's not a criticism of Steve Staunton, because he is a terrific guy and maybe he was promoted to the job a little early, and I think everyone will agree at this stage. But he is now assistant manager at Leeds and he will probably be a good manager in five years' time, a great one in fact."

The importance of how the deal was done may fade with time, but its simple presence represents an alarming angle on how football is being run in Ireland. The revelation that O'Brien made contact before Staunton's departure was greeted with surprise by the former manager's adviser this weekend.

Michael Kennedy said he was not aware of the contact on October 19 and said it was an "interesting" development. Staunton, who was not available for comment yesterday, is believed to be furious at the manner of Trapattoni's appointment.

It is now also not beyond the realms of possibility that Staunton could get legal advice to see if he could sue the FAI for the manner in which he was let go.

Ultimately, the acceptance of the money by the FAI is the clearest indication that it is an organisation still very much in the grips of the small-minded petty thinking that has dogged it all the way through the last century.

The FAI had absolutely no need to accept O'Brien's money. It could easily afford to fund Trap's salary given its current cash reserve of €25m. But instead the suits took the cheap option and they sold their souls to O'Brien for less than €2m. Delaney's comments about how there was no suggestion of "getting tickets" as a result of the deal shows more than anything how small minded many running football in Ireland still are.

If he was giving €20m to develop a new academy, or guarantee funds for grassroots football for the next 15 years, then fine, yes give him all the plaudits available.

But all O'Brien has bought is good PR at a bargain basement price.

This was reflected in his comments to TV3 on Wednesday. He was asked would he be prepared to give more money if the FAI came looking.

He said casually: "I'd certainly be open to that but the way I look at it is, the FAI have limited resources and are trying to get the game at grassroots level up to a particular standard. It's really a way to ensure they keep the grassroots game going while hiring a top notch manager. I don't know what it'll cost, but I haven't given it too much thought to be honest with you, because they have landed the right person and I'm happy to cover whatever the cost of that."

This morning John Delaney is off to meet his new gaffer, and while he can smile and be happy that they have got their man, whatever way they spin it, it has come at a cost, and that is once again the integrity of Irish soccer.

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