Sport Soccer

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Brand new stadium but same old story

A general view of the new Aviva Stadium at the official opening
A general view of the new Aviva Stadium at the official opening
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE FAI would like you to believe they are the masters of preparation. All seeing, all knowing. Right down to the last detail.

"I think from the concert point of view, (Michael) Buble was the right tone," said John Delaney, completely unprompted, in the midst of explaining the consideration which the team behind the new Aviva Stadium have given to every aspect of the renovated Lansdowne Road's first year. It wasn't a joke, but it was met with laughter.

You can never underestimate the FAI's ability to find an iceberg. This was a big week for them, a potential orgy of positive publicity. The new stadium looks fantastic, a great place to throw a party. They had a right hooley there last night.

Never mind that the good people in Abbotstown have borrowed significantly to pay for it and have screwed up the pricing of the 10-year tickets intended to cover that commitment. Sure we'll worry about that later. It's the Irish way.

The pictures look great, and the general public will be wowed. Add in the announcement that Manchester United are coming to town, which is strategically timed for Wednesday, August 4, and it's nigh on the perfect week. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as it happens. Those upstarts down in Limerick manage to pluck Barcelona out of nowhere, an occasion which would give a huge boost to the region in the middle of a recession and offer hope to a club which desperately needs it.

And the FAI block it. Why? Well, we're not quite sure but, rightly or wrongly, the perception now exists that the national association, keen to get Barcelona for another Aviva date, are now in competition with their own clubs to secure big bucks. Limerick are told it's because of a clash with League of Ireland fixtures. Seriously.

"How can the FAI be competing with clubs for friendlies, when the FAI get to sanction what games take place?" said one Limerick insider, expressing an opinion which is hard to quibble with.

So the first question Delaney is asked on his big day is for some clarity on a decision which is an unmitigated disaster in PR terms, and he knows it. He says he can't speak about it because of a legal letter sent from Limerick that day although, legally, the sending of a letter does not preclude the recipient from talking on the issue in question.

"My week has been dealing with the Europa League, dealing with meetings down here all week. The Barcelona issue, well, you know, I think there was a press release last night, so I can't deal with it today because there's a correspondence from Limerick. I can't comment on it," he said, unconvincingly.

Later, it emerges that the letter relates to the FAI entering negotiations with Barcelona when Limerick were already immersed, rather than the actual decision to refuse to sanction the game. The letter was no reason for Delaney to stonewall questions and not explain the "third-party commercial agreement" cited as the main reason, which hasn't been detailed to Limerick. Effectively, the strategy was to dodge the issue.

It was different when it came to the issue of the 10-year ticket holders -- sorry, that old chestnut again -- and their anger at being asked to shell out extra for the Manchester United game. Delaney acknowledged they should be given the option to buy extra or receive a discount, although some Vantage Club members won't be happy until there is a 100pc price reduction.

The last thing the FAI needed to do this week was get people talking about the Vantage Club. How could they not have seen it coming? It defies logic.

Recently, at a meeting to discuss the terrible sales of the premium seats, a marketing guru tentatively suggested if the best course of action was to attempt a rebranding of the FAI. An impractical thought, yet the sentiment tells a story in itself.

Whatever the situation, the FAI rarely do themselves any favours. Sure, the IRFU and GAA have the advantage of successful products on the pitch which will always deflect from the suits. A protracted break from the big stage has left the FAI in a different light. Imagine, this could have been the week when Giovanni Trapattoni named his party of 30 for South Africa, an event which would have left everything else in the shade. Alas, Thierry Henry happened, and Irish football is left to operate in its own little mixed-up world.

When Delaney became chief executive, he spoke about the need to change the perception of the organisation. In some respects, there have been improvements. Certainly, there's a greater FAI presence around the country, where it is actively competing at grass-roots level with other sports. There are some talented people trying their best to spread the message.

Nevertheless, the reputation will always hinge on the big decisions. Even as recently as November, the FAI, understandably at first, less so when the horse was flogged, managed to handle the fall-out from Paris in such a way that great swathes of the population ended up cringing even though the injustice was genuine.

The FAI pursued a line of attack against FIFA that would appeal to listeners of 'Liveline'. League of Ireland officials, beaten down into avoiding criticism of the authorities on their own turf, dared to raise their hand and point out the hypocrisy.

They have been provided with further ammunition this week. The concept of a League of Ireland XI taking on a Man United selection is an exciting one in theory, a chance to showcase the best the game here has to offer. In reality, the very same individuals should be representing Ireland in European competition that week in games that really do matter. Not that it bothers the FAI too much when the priority is money, something which Alex Ferguson, Wayne Rooney, et al, can generate. It's a classic case of further alienating the parishioners.

The Limerick issue is on a different plane, though, in terms of hardening the negative view of the FAI. And it won't go away quietly.

Not to worry. Reflecting on an occasion where the Barca shenanigans were the real talking point, Delaney described it as one of the most memorable days in the history of the association.

Who needs Buble when you live in a bubble?

Irish Independent

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