Tuesday 22 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Goodbye and good riddance to fallen John the Baptist'


Former FAI Chief Executive John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
Former FAI Chief Executive John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

His name was John Delaney king of kings. Look on his works ye mighty and despair. It's entirely in keeping with the rest of his FAI career that John Delaney will depart with a big pay-off, apparently at least twice as much as Dundalk will pocket for winning the League of Ireland. In the words of Liberace, he'll cry all the way to the bank.

The parallels with Las Vegas's favourite pianist don't stop there. Delaney was the Liberace of Irish sport. He was in many ways a genuinely outlandish figure.

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John Delaney throws his tie into the crowd in Moscow after Ireland’s draw with Russia in 2011. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
John Delaney throws his tie into the crowd in Moscow after Ireland’s draw with Russia in 2011. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

Think of that extraordinary 50th birthday party with the wedding planner from TV drafted in to oversee festivities which apparently aimed to break the national bad taste record. Think of him clinking glasses with the airheads and micro celebrities at the infamous newspaper Christmas party where the record had previously been set.

Consider that nearly North Korean obsession with preventing any public criticism which saw security staff stationed in stands and programmes pulped. And those ostentatious public displays of intimate affection which made him look like an insecure Junior Cert student striving to impress his classmates.

What about the loony rebel sing songs and the slightly desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with the Ireland fans by flashing money and buying drink? At times he resembled not so much a sporting administrator as a figure who'd escaped from a novel unsubtly satirising the crassest elements of Irish society.

It was the kind of behaviour which suggested a grown man still in thrall to a teenage boy's fantasy of the good life. Maybe those floppy hairdos told us more about John Delaney than he intended. Maybe at heart he was always 17.

John Delaney with girlfriend Emma English at the Euros in France back in 2016. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
John Delaney with girlfriend Emma English at the Euros in France back in 2016. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

It's hard to have sympathy for him. After the aforementioned sing song Delaney's legal people threatened to sue anyone who suggested he was involved. When incontrovertible evidence emerged that he had been they changed their tune. It was a telling moment.

Delaney was notoriously litigious so it's perhaps fitting that his downfall began with a failed attempt to injunct the story which revealed his unconventional loan arrangements with the FAI.

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That failure led to the revelation of other arrangements which should have made his position untenable long ago. Perhaps the worst offence was that while cutting the wages of low paid staff at the FAI he was secretly having his rent paid and spending enormous amounts of money on the Association credit card.

He had told those low-paid workers that he was sharing the pain by taking a cut to his exorbitant salary yet they didn't know just how much Delaney was actually raking in. To make things worse, the cuts were being made as a result of the botched Vantage Club scheme where the CEO had foolishly banked on the sale of long-term tickets at frankly lunatic prices.

There's something teenage about that too. Delaney went blithely on in the knowledge that someone else would pay for the damage. The announcement that he too was taking a pay cut was also schoolboy stuff. Like many teenage boys, what he coveted most was popularity.

His desire to be liked was a palpable, almost pathetic thing. I met him once, he was in Dunmanway on FAI business and expressed a desire to meet. We had a couple of drinks and a chat in the Parkway Hotel and he introduced me to Packie Bonner.

A few weeks later, I criticised the FAI for something and received another email. Why, he wondered, had I done that? Hadn't we met in Dunmanway and didn't we get on grand? There was an odd innocence about this plaintive 'I thought you were my friend' approach. Perhaps he'd been trying to welcome me into this Football Family he liked to talk about.

I think that Football Family idea wasn't an entirely cynical formulation on his part.

It was a kid's idea of a happy family, where everyone stood up for everyone else against the outside world no matter what they'd done. Though of course Mafiosi also see families in these terms.

Delaney was essentially a creature of the Celtic Tiger era when mediocrities got paid top dollar and greed and vulgarity were seen as positive qualities. It was a time when papers breathlessly described the number of helicopters over Ballybrit, the amount of cocaine being taken in Dublin nightclubs and the ballsy developers who declared Albania might be the new Bulgaria.

The tide went out on all that yet John, who wasn't subject to the vicissitudes of the economy, kept living the Tiger life and being remunerated accordingly.

His defenders used the same excuse that's currently being employed to justify the astronomical wages of RTÉ personalities, claiming the CEO could be making much more in some unspecified location.

They stick together, these people who know they're worth it.

He had other defenders, not all motivated by self-interest. To understand why Delaney inspired loyalty among genuine football people you have to remember that the FAI was once seen as a Dublin organisation where the interests of the capital were paramount.

Delaney was the first FAI head who acted like a GAA president. He gave money to rural clubs which had struggled for years with spartan facilities, he brought underage internationals to venues all round the country and made the FAI seem a less distant organisation to grassroots volunteers. He genuinely enjoyed meeting people and some of them enjoyed meeting him too.

It's hard to resist someone so transparently eager to be liked. So while it might be comforting to write off all his supporters as either stupid or corrupt there was more to it than that.

Perhaps his closest Irish equivalent was Charlie Haughey, who also inspired loyalty in some and loathing in others before being undone by a hubris so large you could probably see it from space.

What will future generations think of John Delaney? They'll probably think we made him up.

What a long, strange trip it's been.

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