Sunday 17 November 2019

Mending fences will take time for equestrian powers that be

Appointing a new chef d'equipe has opened old sores, says John O'Brien

Imagine the scenario. It is late 2016. Owen Coyle is looking back on his first campaign as Ireland manager with considerable satisfaction, having guided his young, well-organised team into the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Mark McCall, too, has reason to be pleased with a second Grand Slam secured in the spring and a clean sweep through the autumn internationals. Both of their contracts are due to expire but neither seem unduly worried.

And then a curve ball is lobbed in. Following lengthy board meetings both managers are informed that, while appreciative of their efforts, the officers have decided that they would like to put the posts out to tender. They are informed that they are free to reapply for their jobs if they wish. Again they are thanked profusely for their hard work. A press release is prepared. Much scratching of heads ensues.

It is not a perfect analogy but that, broadly, is the curious place in which the world of Irish equestrianism finds itself right now. Last November, Joe Walsh, then chairman of Horse Sport Ireland, was commending Robert Splaine and Ginny Elliot for the job they had done as Irish showjumping and eventing managers respectively. In the next breath he was announcing the process that, in all probability, would lead to neither regaining their jobs.

To an outsider, it all seemed a little odd. Under Splaine, Irish showjumping had recovered from the setback of not qualifying a team for the London Olympics by snatching the country's first ever equestrian medal and finished the year ranked third in the world with back-to-back Nations Cup triumphs in Dublin and Hickstead. Elliot had exceeded all targets by guiding the eventing team into fifth place at the Games. Nevertheless, they would have to submit themselves to a grilling, just like any other prospective candidate.

For HSI, the dream scenario was snaring candidates who would offer not only competency to do the job, but also instant star appeal. Eddie Macken had signalled his interest in becoming chef d'equipe as early as October while others were known to be interested too. By the time the deadline for applications closed on December 20, seven had thrown their hats into the ring for the showjumping vacancy and nine for the eventing post, Splaine and Elliot among them.

As far as the showjumping end was concerned, though, that dream scenario has not unfolded as smoothly as they'd hoped. To those who felt a job carrying a base salary of €75,000 and a whole lot of stress was unlikely to attract the kind of outside candidate who would have ensured the kind of expedient process the board had anticipated, that was no surprise. And if anyone regarded Macken as a slam-dunk candidate, they were quickly disabused of that notion.

The efficiency of the process that led to the announcement of Nick Turner as Elliot's replacement nine days ago was notable. After the nine candidates had been interviewed, Turner was identified quickly as the "outstanding" candidate and invited back to close the deal. In contrast, four candidates remained after the first round of showjumping interviews and none of them could be certain where they stood.

At the initial interviews on January 4 – although Macken's was conducted by telephone five days later – candidates were told to expect an outcome within seven days. Then they were informed a second interview would be required and these will not take place until February 11, a delay attributed to the board's wish for the incoming HSI chairman Pat Wall to have a hand in the process.

Then a day later the field was whittled down to three. In a stinging letter to HSI and copied to the media, Macken claimed he had been "effectively forced" from the race and cited a poor line of communication with Mark O'Donnell, the Amrop consultant assisting HSI, as his main grievance. Macken cited the delay in announcing the second round of interviews as the final straw. "Being that this has become a very drawn out process," he said, "simple economics dictate that I cannot risk losing existing contracts while I wait for HSI."

The rights and wrongs of Macken's issue with O'Donnell are hard to ascertain. Macken insists he wasn't kept up to speed with key details of the process, O'Donnell is adamant he maintained due diligence at all times at his end. Macken had previously had a stormy period as team trainer in 2003 and 2004 and had agreed to take the chef d'equipe position a year later only to belatedly disengage, citing work commitments. However motivated he appeared this time around, it is difficult to imagine that previous episode not planting a seed of doubt in the interview panels' minds.

After Macken's near appointment in 2005, Splaine stepped into the breach and, after seven years, it wasn't unreasonable of the board to ask whether it was time for an injection of fresh blood in the role. Splaine had presented his case in November, requesting a two-year extension to his existing contract, but that had been turned down. He would have to reapply like everyone else.

Not only that but in early December the board had arranged a gathering of international riders in a Dublin Airport hotel in order to canvass their opinions on the role of chef d'equipe. Both O'Donnell and Damian McDonald, HSI chief executive, were in attendance. Splaine asked to address the meeting, but this request was turned down.

He would have realised that this wasn't good news for his future. Nobody could be chef d'equipe for seven years and not raise the hackles of several riders. It was simply the nature of a position which entailed making tough decisions that inevitably left more riders disappointed than pleased. O'Donnell and McDonald would have left the meeting in no doubt that a majority of riders, while not openly hostile towards Splaine, were firmly in the Macken camp.

But Macken is gone now and his departure has enraged those who, 30 years after Boomerang, still recognise the Canada-based rider's star appeal and see his withdrawal from the race as an indictment of a weak HSI leadership only too happy, in their eyes, to see him out of the equation. "We will never know what might have been," one disgruntled Macken supporter put it last week. "Own goal."

HSI officials dispute this, of course, as they did Macken's suggestion that the organisation had serious issues to address before it could be successful in international events. What about the 25 championship medals won between 2009 and 2012, it asked in a salty press release. The odd thing, though, that while not all of those medals were strictly delivered under his care, it still read as an unintentional endorsement of Splaine's performance.

And yet, although he enjoys the support of senior riders like Cian O'Connor, and evoked a certain amount of sympathy at an HSI board meeting last Thursday, Splaine can hardly feel too hopeful about the future. Even if he somehow scrapes over the line, what about his relationship with senior HSI officials? Has it not now been damaged almost beyond repair?

HSI officials feel they can legitimately say they have done little wrong throughout the process, but it seems clear they will have a number of fences to mend. Whoever they appoint as chef d'equipe now will set off in the knowledge that he wasn't the choice of an overwhelming majority of riders and who needs that as a starting point? And that's a question that needs to be asked: should the riders have been canvassed in the first place?

Irish Independent

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