Thursday 22 August 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'After a decade of delusion, humility should be on menu at FAI AGM'

 

FAI president Donal Conway speaking during last night’s FAI delegates dinner at Knightsbrook Hotel in
Trim, Meath. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
FAI president Donal Conway speaking during last night’s FAI delegates dinner at Knightsbrook Hotel in Trim, Meath. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

AGM day. The FAI's annual gathering has gained notoriety for being the meeting where nothing ever happens. Where inaction speaks louder than words.

It should be different in Meath this morning, although it is fair to acknowledge that there has been a certain amount of variety in the shindig across the 2010s. The location has changed from year to year, with the Festival of Football aspect bringing a bit of colour to the build-up. And, as a remarkable decade developed, the FAI consistently found new and exciting ways to add absurdity to the gathering.

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Let's be honest; stories of press exclusion can be tiresome if framed in the context of how things used to be. The cosy days are gone, and they didn't exactly serve the game well either. What matters about the FAI's idiosyncratic approach to media access is what it said about the overall operation.

Reading through a decade of reports presented to the floor is to walk down a memory lane decorated with messages of obfuscation and delusion.

The message was clear. Don't mind the critics. Don't listen to them. There's nothing to see here, folks. From 2013 (Wicklow) onwards, the post-meeting press conference was binned. By 2015 (Sligo), we had sheepish security patrolling the car park, apparently working off information that protests were planned.

Kilkenny (2017) was the nadir, a year that will be remembered as a pretty significant one in Irish football history. There was no suggestion that protests were on the cards, but we still had the security: walkie talkie-wielding operators pacing around a hotel.

Maybe it was just paranoia, but there did seem to be an excessive interest in the movements of the press pack although that description hints at volumes. There were five journalists present.

Convoluted

However, it was made clear that entrance through the main doors of the meeting was off limits. Instead, we were brought on a comical route through an emergency staircase via reception - where a hen party was checking in - to the back entrance of the function room. The journey was so convoluted that it actually delayed kick-off.

This wasn't a backstage route to the stage at Live Aid. It was a chance to watch a silent room of men sit through a series of positive PowerPoint messages that was at odds with reportage and anecdotal tales about the state of the finances. But there wasn't so much as a nervous whisper from the floor.

There would occasionally be chattering from the press row. The loud counting of Delaney appearances in the montage of the tour around the host county would either prompt disapproving glances or knowing looks from those seated nearby. Thirty was always a fair starting point for spread betters. Taking penalties, cutting tape, cracking jokes. There might even be the odd shovel scene.

He would generally be accompanied by stars of Irish teams from the past, thus giving kids an opportunity to meet their heroes. Queues would inevitably form, and it wasn't just children either.

This was light entertainment before the serious message. That message always seemed to be tackling external takes on their position. At 2010 in Wexford, Delaney took aim at claims that Aviva Stadium premium ticket sales were poor.

"We have delivered in the past and we will do so in the future. Irish football is in good health," he said, highlighting "detailed business plans" that should pay off the contribution to the stadium by 2020.

A year on in Clare, he spoke of how the board had resisted plans to reduce his salary, before he went through with it voluntarily. "It went from €450,000 to €431,000, and it will be around €400,000 now after the latest reduction," he said.

Donegal 2012 followed off the back of a boisterous European finals in Poland; the demise of Monaghan United during the competition was unfortunate. Delaney said he would be taking another pay cut to facilitate belt-tightening.

"I took pay cuts in the past and I will take them into the future again," he said. "I earned more before I got this job and I have been offered jobs since I got this job on a lot more money."

At the main meeting, he spoke of the need for a "cost-effective" administration while praising the "selfless" work of volunteers. The singing section at the Aviva Stadium was also singled out for warm words.

Twelve months later, the press conference perished. Delaney referenced the board's "corporate duty to the Association to act in its best interests", before citing an article in the Sunday Independent which described "growing concern" in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport about their debt.

"This was most surprising since the reality is that we have an excellent professional relationship with the Ministers and the Department who are fully informed and are not in the dark whatsoever and who have confirmed this to be the case. We have a very close and supportive relationship," said Delaney. "Every one of us here in this room is part of a team. We are all just passing through with the objective of doing our best to improve our respective areas of the game to pass it on to the next person in better shape."

In 2014, we had the announcement of Delaney's new deal; a contract that has proved to be a factor in talks about the Waterford man's current limbo. "The board of the FAI came to me with it (new contract) and I would like to thank the delegates, the members and volunteers for their continued support," he said.

The next AGM was the security special in Sligo, with an emotional Delaney given a standing ovation after a stormy year where some ill-advised ballad singing and a furore over the €5m payment from FIFA post Thierry Henry put him in the headlines.

"We may not have got everything right, but we get a lot more right than wrong," he said.

"We are united, a confident organisation and the support is incredible. I do not take this support for granted and I value your support. And I am proud, very proud, to be your CEO of this great, great Association."

The delegates gave a bit back in Tipperary, a month after Euro 2016. It was decided that the grassroots would make a presentation to Delaney.

"John has embellished all aspects of the game in Ireland and, indeed, Europe but, most importantly, at grassroots level here in Ireland," said Gerry Tully from the Roscommon & District League

Noel Kennedy of the Sligo & Leitrim League added: "I had the privilege last year, John, of saying that you are the best CEO that the FAI ever had (the actual term was best signing) and, on your home patch, I would like to say 'thank you' for proving me correct. The reports given today show how lucky we are to have a person of your calibre guiding us into the future,"

Kilkenny was next on the rota. The unusual aspect of the press access on the day was that Delaney had opted to take questions at the launch two months previously. He gave an upbeat financial assessment. Bridging loans were a private matter at that juncture.

UEFA's Noel Mooney was the special guest, reflecting fondly on his time as an FAI employee under Delaney. "We had a young CEO who managed to make the association fit for purpose," he said. "The FAI is one of our most progressive and well-run federations. You can be proud of yourselves, the board and all the members here."

Cork 2018 was preceded by Delaney and finance director Eamon Breen speaking about the debt-free by 2020 plan.

"We are pleased to outline a clear position today that the board will continue the objective of being debt-free by end of 2020," said Delaney at the meeting itself. "There will be no compromise here. We can achieve this through both prudent financial operations and by continuing to invest into the game."

And so we arrive to 2019. The greatest hits collection should highlight why it's important to strike a realistic tone.

Donal Conway did mention the word "stupid" last week when the idea of clearing the debt by 2020 was floated. It was acknowledged that it could take at least another decade.

In other words, every financial prediction offered over the past ten years was basically wrong. That should be reflected in the tone of proceedings. There are good things happening in Irish football, but it would be unfortunate if attempts were made to reference underage results and positive League of Ireland displays this week as evidence that everything is just dandy.

Conway used the term "the old FAI" in a recent press briefing and that's what the old FAI would have done. On the occasion of his contentious re-election as president, it would be unfortunate if the speeches were a throwback.

Last week's decision by delegates to embrace governance reforms is welcome, but voting to try and put out a fire that was lit under your supervision is no cause for celebration.

Trim 2019 should be the point where the FAI begin to cut the crap.

 

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TODAY

  • Elections for president and vice-president; both of whom will serve on an interim board for one year. Donal Conway is running unopposed for president. Noel Fitzroy faces opposition for vice-president from Gerry McAnaney and Paul Cooke.
  • Clarity is expected on the other ‘football’ positions on the new board with a number of meetings in the various constituencies scheduled for early this morning ahead of the main gathering.
  • New rules come into effect from 10am – changes to the rulebook were ratified at last week’s EGM – so that will confirm the introduction of new power structures from the top down with gender quotas to be implemented within two years.

 

WHAT WON’T HAPPEN

  • Annual accounts will not be presented to the room. Instead, the meeting will be adjourned until the autumn when those figures are available.
  • There will be no mention of John Delaney from the top table. FAI officials have followed a policy of no comment on any matters related to Delaney since he ‘voluntarily stepped aside’ in April.
  • No specific updates will be provided on the detail of ongoing reports into the FAI, with Conway indicating last week that it will be autumn time before KOSI (Sport Ireland auditors) and Mazars (professional services firm hired by FAI) are in a position to complete their initial work. Delegates are likely to be given time-scales today. A financial review in conjunction with UEFA is also ongoing.

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