Sport GAA

Saturday 14 December 2019

Dion Fanning: Politicians had their chance to question John Delaney and they blew it

John Delaney and Alan Kelly
John Delaney and Alan Kelly

Dion Fanning

Malcolm Gladwell's article 'The Pitchman' tells the story of Ron Popeil and other men who took part in the "conquest of the American kitchen". Popeil invented the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, the countertop oven Gladwell says "may be, dollar for dollar, the finest kitchen appliance ever made".

Some will instinctively think of Alan Partridge at this point and his musings on turkey king Bernard Matthews. "Depending on your point of view," Partridge said, "he is either responsible for the biggest ornithological genocide of recent times, or he is the greatest farmyard to table strategist of the last 100 years."

Popeil was part of the Morris-Popeil family, whose inventions took over the American kitchen. "They believed that it was a mistake to separate product development from marketing," Gladwell wrote.

These men were vaudevillians, showmen up to the point when they would have to ask for the public's cash.

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

The key for all pitchmen is "the turn". This is "the perilous, crucial moment where he goes from entertainer to businessman".

Another member of the family, Arnold Morris, told Gladwell that he once became so annoyed at the attitude of some guys he'd hired to pitch a vegetable slicer for him at a fair in Danbury, Connecticut, that he took over the presentation himself, despite not being familiar with the product. In a single pitch, he took $200.

"Their eyes popped out of their heads," Morris said. "They said, 'We don't understand it. You don't even know how to work the damn machine'. I said, 'But I know how to do one thing better than you'. They said, 'What's that?' I said, 'I know how to ask for the money'. And that's the secret to the whole damn business."

When we look back on this golden age for Irish football and Irish football administration, we might wonder how we overlooked the genius of John Delaney. He is, of course, an entertainer, something he demonstrated on the streets of Sopot four years ago, and which he emphasises whenever he appears on television or radio, appearances which, for reasons best known to himself, he has curtailed in recent times.

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But he is also a man who knows how to execute "the turn". In fact, as he demonstrated in the aftermath of the Thierry Henry handball in 2009, he knows how to execute "the turn" better than most in football administration. During those months when Ireland felt so aggrieved, he moved from entertainer (what is outrage in the modern world if not another branch of the entertainment industry?) to businessman effortlessly, parlaying that outrage into five big ones, and securing a good deal for the Association in the process.

His only regret when he walked away was that he hadn't asked for more money. Since then, Delaney has retreated from the world stage (although the Palace of Versailles awaits in June) but he remains a pitchman for Irish football. He is, too, a pitchman for his county, a pitch no less diluted because he has many counties.

He is a fan of Kilkenny hurling, a Tipperary man, a Waterford man and a man of the people. He has a profound sense of place which is no less profound because he belongs to so many places.

As he explained to Tipperary Mid-West radio. "A lot of people often say to me, 'Well you've done a lot for Tipperary town and St Michael's football club and clubs around the country.' Well you do that because of personal connections to the clubs. It's your job to do, but also because you are in a position to do it."

Last week, some were exercised by the news that John Delaney was reportedly encouraging the people of Tipperary to vote for the minister Alan Kelly. Others felt it was important that a distinction be made between the private individual who might campaign for a Labour minister or, say, sing a song late at night lamenting the fate of an IRA hunger striker, and the CEO of a sporting body which receives public money who does none of these things, but who, of course, is entitled to a night out.

Of course, you couldn't imagine the head of the IRFU campaigning for, say, Lucinda Creighton, but equally you couldn't imagine anybody being too upset if he did.

Whatever Delaney does will be seen as inexcusable by those who think he diminishes Irish football in whatever capacity he is operating, and it will be seen as media hysteria by those who think he is a visionary leading us to the promised debt-free (if we want it) land.

There were times in the past when Delaney could have been asked to account for his actions, but the politicians who are complaining now should have been stronger when they occurred.

In the aftermath of the revelations about the €5 million payment from FIFA, the Oireachtas Transport and Sport Committee considered calling Delaney before it to explain the deal.

The committee decided against calling Delaney before it on the back of what was referred to as "strong advice".

The Irish Independent noted that, "it had been earlier reported that Mr Delaney had called members of the committee during which he requested not to be required to give evidence. He was reported to have said if he was called in, the matter would have been a distraction ahead of Ireland's key game against Scotland this weekend".

It is not hard to imagine what would happen if the head of the English FA had made a secret deal with FIFA and then spent some time contacting members of a parliamentary committee and reportedly advising them not to bother calling him to appear before them. The head of the English FA would now be spending some time in the Big Brother house.

During the Falklands War, one reporter became involved in a menacing tussle with another war correspondent, Max Hastings, future editor of The Daily Telegraph, who was suspected of not sending pooled copy back to Britain as agreed.

In the Upland Goose in Port Stanley, one of the other reporters confronted Hastings, grabbed a bayonet that was behind the bar and charged at him. A colleague intervened with the words, "This is neither the time nor the place to kill Max Hastings."

Politicians had an opportunity to put tough questions to John Delaney when it wasn't framed by the self-interest of a general election campaign.

They didn't take it, and now they can't complain when John Delaney is executing "the turn", moving effortlessly from entertainer to the finest damn pitchman in the business.

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