Tuesday 15 October 2019

Wayne O'Connor: 'The divisive reign of John Delaney'

John Delaney's tenure as FAI chief executive has been both colourful and eventful. Wayne O'Connor reflects on some interesting times

John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
John Delaney with Giovanni Trapattoni at Lansdowne Road in 2008.
John Delaney with fans in Slovakia in 2010.
John Delaney with Pat Hickey and Emma English in the stands at UEFA Euro 2016 in Paris
John Delaney celebrating after a victory during the Euro 2012 playoffs
John Delaney with Steve Staunton
John Delaney with current manager Mick McCarthy last week. Photo: Sportsfile
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Saipan did more than spawn one of the most intense debates in Irish sport; it also presented us with one of football's most divisive characters - John Delaney.

The civil war that raged between Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane sparked the first time Delaney was welcomed into the nation's sitting rooms as he provided updates on the saga on every news bulletin.

Delaney stood out because of his floppy hair and nervousness in front of the cameras. Nobody really knew who he was but everyone waited with bated breath for the then FAI treasurer's press conferences and interviews.

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The fact he had the inside-track on the dispute made him important. He became instantly recognisable, a celebrity in his own right.

"Will Roy come back, John?" "Will Mick have him back?", we all asked.

Within three years, Delaney was appointed chief executive. He vacated that post last night.

He is a different man to the one we saw during the Saipan affair, but even more familiar. His hair has greyed with time. It is slicked back and styled with greater attention. He has become a more weary and more refined media performer. But since Saipan and eventually becoming head of the "football family" in 2005, he has split opinion among supporters.

There are those who admire him. They admire his willingness to engage with the grassroots members, travel the country to open new playing fields and clubhouses, mix with the supporters who hope he would right wrongs in the game.

Delaney expressed his views "as a chartered accountant" at public meetings in the early years of his involvement with the association. As a result of this and his willingness to engage with the game at all levels, he was seen as a safe pair of hands when he was promoted to chief executive in 2005. In 2016 he was forced to admit he was not technically a chartered accountant. He had completed his exams to become a member but never went through the formal process of joining Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI). You must be a member of the institute to be called a chartered accountant.

That had been a rocky year for Delaney. He resigned as vice-president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), despite being hotly tipped to replace Pat Hickey as president.

The resignation came after Hickey was accused of ticket touting during a police investigation at the Rio Olympics. During the investigation, a Brazilian judge issued a warrant for police to seize Delaney's passport and the passports of five other OCI members. That warrant was subsequently withdrawn by the Brazilian police. Delaney was not suspected of wrongdoing and had no knowledge, role or involvement with the OCI's handling of tickets.

For the cohort of the 'football family' not supportive of Delaney's tenure, much of the animosity is borne out of the association's recent financial hardships. The building of the Aviva Stadium 10 years ago saw the FAI saddled with debts of €70m. These stayed stubbornly high and stood at more than €50m in 2012, before eventually falling to €29.5m at the end of 2017. Delaney has insisted this part of the debt will be paid off by next year.

In 2008, Delaney was front and centre at the launch of the Vantage Club ticket plan, a scheme that secured 10-year corporate tickets for between €12,000 and €34,000.

The FAI vowed to invest 2.5pc of each initial fee back into grassroots football and to help service the stadium debt. The scheme failed and never gathered the expected interest.

"Pricing was made on solid advice but the pricing was wrong, the recession began to bite," Delaney said of the scheme last year. A new Vantage Club scheme was launched a month ago, offering 10-year tickets for €5,000.

Financial constraints have caused issues on and off the field.

FAI staff threatened strike action in 2012 over redundancies and wage cuts. Delaney, "to show leadership", took a 10pc pay cut from his salary of €400,000 per annum. His annual salary as CEO was €360,000, more than three times the prize money earned by Dundalk for winning the League of Ireland last season.

Even the sum Delaney receives from European football's governing body Uefa for sitting on its executive committee eclipses Dundalk's season-winning purse by €50,000. Last week Delaney said he would be donating the €160,000 Uefa payment for 2018 back to the FAI.

However, this does little to address the financial burden for League of Ireland clubs. Delaney says the clubs collectively have lower debts compared to a decade ago but some struggle to pay players' salaries over the course of a season and the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland has raised questions about structures and licensing regimes used by the FAI to validate clubs.

Player welfare concerns came to a head in 2017 when the senior international women's team threatened to pull out of a fixture against Slovakia because of ill-treatment. Amateurs in the team complained of not receiving money to compensate for lost earnings while representing their country. They had to share tracksuits and get changed in airport bathrooms, the players said.

Ireland's captain at the time, Emma Byrne, said players were sacrificing their football careers because of financial pressures. This was happening as the association appeared to be working to address its own fiscal burdens.

Documents obtained by the Sunday Independent under the Freedom of Information Act show John Delaney applied for State funding to be released to the organisation early and before it had completed the grant approval process by submitting the necessary paperwork.

Emails and letters show Delaney wrote to Sport Ireland seeking partial release of grants before they had been signed off. For example, just three weeks before Ireland's first Euro 2016 game against Sweden in Paris, John Delaney asked Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy "for a 25pc drawdown of our Sport Ireland grant this week".

"I trust you will look favourably upon our request," Delaney wrote.

He received a response on June 16, three days after the Sweden tie and two days before the second game of the tournament against Belgium.

"I wish to confirm that a bank transfer of €676,978 has now been made to the FAI," Mr Treacy wrote.

"Payment of the final 25pc will be made when (i) Sport Ireland has approved your expenditure breakdown and (ii) your organisation has submitted the required compliance documentation."

The FAI and Sport Ireland have not breached any rules by making or responding to the request.

Concerns, however, emerged in other areas.

Delaney has been accused of not acting in a manner becoming of an international sports administrator following a series of apparent public incidents while socialising.

During Euro 2012, he was criticised for appearing to be drunk and dishevelled while "interacting" with supporters in Poland. His work there was remembered for the late-night antics that saw him go home shoeless.

He was called a "clown" by the sports editor of the Guardian and had his leadership questioned by Labour's Aodhan O Riordain during a debate about football supporters' drinking habits.

Delaney has been reluctant to speak about the matter but shortly after the events in Poland he told the Sunday Independent he took "grave offence to some of those criticisms".

"We worked very, very hard," he said.

"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."

The relationship has soured with some supporters since then.

The You Boys In Green (YBIG) supporters group has raised concerns about governance issues in the association and responded by chanting anti-Delaney slogans at matches.

In 2014 it complained about alleged "heavy-handed treatment of stadium personnel" and heightened security measures at the south stand at the Aviva stadium - where many of the YBIG supporters gather together for games.

The supporters have complained of similar treatment at other matches and have alleged that banners criticising the FAI chief executive being confiscated, removed or prevented from being brought in to stadiums.
Last year, he said supporters deserve to have their voices heard.

"If supporters want to voice their opinions, I am not going to prevent them," he said.

Delaney landed himself in further controversy in 2014 when he was filmed singing a pro-Republican song in a Dublin pub following a match against the USA. The footage was published online. It appeared to show him singing Joe McDonnell by the Wolfe Tones. The song is about a member of the provisional IRA who died on hunger strike in 1981.

The man in the video sang:

"…you died unselfishly

And Patsy O'Hara and next in line was me

And those [sic] who lie behind me may your courage be the same

And I pray to God my life was not in vain.

Oh but sad and bitter was the year of 1981…"

Initially, lawyers representing Delaney denied he was the man singing. Delaney later admitted to RTE that it was him and criticised the "sly" way the performance was filmed. The FAI released a statement saying the original denial was due to a mix-up.

"I now understand that while I was travelling and uncontactable, there was some confusion through a third party around the background of a video which appeared and where it happened which led to a misunderstanding.

"As anyone who knows me will attest, I abhor violence and have worked tirelessly through my role at the Football Association of Ireland to strengthen links between communities on this island, north and south."

The following year, it emerged that the FAI received a €5m payout from Fifa linked to Ireland's failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2010 and Thierry Henry's controversial handball in Paris to set up the goal for France that knocked Ireland out.

In the weeks after the handball, it emerged the FAI met with then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter seeking a remedy. This led to Blatter poking fun at Ireland, much to the annoyance of many supporters.

"They have asked, very humbly, 'Can't we be team Number 33 at the World Cup?" Blatter told a conference in South Africa after the FAI meeting. Cue raucous laughter at the conference: "They have asked for that, really."

The FAI successfully argued the joke was a breach of confidentiality and not representative of the entire meeting.

Fifa issued the payment as a loan for "the construction of a stadium in Ireland". Fifa wrote the loan off in December 2014 after Ireland failed to qualify for that year's World Cup.

The FAI said the payment was "legitimate". Delaney said the deal represented "good business" for the association.

It appears to not have helped steady its finances and news last week that Delaney lent €100,000 to his employer in 2017 to aid "a very short-term cash flow issue" has caused further concern and resignation demands.

Delaney has been through a lot since Saipan, but he still has people waiting for answers to their questions.

The Sunday Independent requested an interview with Mr Delaney one week ago but the FAI said it could not facilitate the request.

"Unfortunately that is not something we can help with at this time," a spokesman said.

Since then, Delaney has issued numerous public statements on the matter and responded to questions from Sport Ireland, acting on behalf of Sport Minister Shane Ross, about the loan.

The FAI has also been in contact with the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement to offer a clarification.

Delaney confirmed last week that he will attend a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Sport next month. It is not clear if this will still happen now that he is no longer chief executive.

He referred to the committee as a "sideshow" last year.

"I've been in front of many Dail committees before, explaining what Irish football does. I'm not really interested in sideshows, people making comments for the sake of publicity."

The final statement of the week last night confirmed he was no longer the FAI's chief executive and is taking up the new role of executive vice-president.

It is not just the financial problems that concern supporters but the fact Delaney appeared to spend thousands of euro attempting to get an injunction preventing the loan becoming public knowledge.

It is not yet clear how much this legal challenge has cost or who will foot the bill.

The question was to be put to him at a press conference which the FAI promised to host next month. It is unclear if Delaney will be there to take questions.

Sunday Independent

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