Friday 23 August 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Stage one complete, but long road ahead to test FAI stamina

FAI president Donal Conway addresses delegates during yesterday’s AGM at the Knightsbook Hotel in Trim. Conway was returned unopposed, with Paul Cooke elected as the Association’s new vice president. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
FAI president Donal Conway addresses delegates during yesterday’s AGM at the Knightsbook Hotel in Trim. Conway was returned unopposed, with Paul Cooke elected as the Association’s new vice president. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The business of stage one of the FAI AGM was approaching its final quarter when some unexpected contributions from the floor temporarily knocked the re-elected president Donal Conway out of his stride.

"If I can catch up on my script now," he said, trying to bring the Knightsbrook Hotel gathering back on track with a view to closing proceedings.

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It was a debate about the election of auditors that brought discussion in a slightly different direction. Derry City's Denis Bradley, a hugely respected political operator in his native city who has brokered far more sensitive situations, triggered a conversation on whether long-term partners Deloitte should be retained as auditors.

With the presentation of 2018 accounts delayed until the autumn, when the AGM will resume, that decision has been put on the long finger for now. When Finn Harps delegate Paul McLoone put his hand up and asked for the microphone, the assumption was that he was about to add his opinion on that subject.

Instead, he offered his take on the effectiveness of the overall meeting. "I don't see an awful lot of change," said McLoone, as part of a broader point about the timescale for the appointment of an interim board. "I'm not so sure that this has been a good day at all."

He said: "A lot of decisions are being made on the blind. The whole public perception will be same old, same old."

Vice president: Paul Cooke
Vice president: Paul Cooke

The top table shifted uncomfortably.

It's been a decade since an FAI AGM featured some activity from the floor. On that occasion in Monaghan, Paul Cooke flagged some concerns. He was on stage yesterday, having successfully sought approval from members to be elected as vice president ahead of Gerry McAnaney, with both candidates giving campaign speeches before the secret ballot.

The fact that Cooke won the day, when he was perceived as a critic of John Delaney, is enough to satisfy some FAI delegates that the Association is positively embracing reform.

For others, it's not as straightforward.

The review proposals the FAI are adopting recommend that the structure of the board changes going forward. Within two years, it's mandatory that at least four members of the 12-person board will be female.

The eight board members confirmed yesterday are all male, meaning that the search for independent candidates will now have to try and right that wrong; Conway acknowledged that they would have preferred if two women came from their constituencies but that scenario didn't come to pass.

In truth, that issue wasn't a major talking point in the post-mortem outside the Barbican Suite in the Trim hotel.

Veteran attendees were more energised by the last-minute decision of outgoing vice president Noel Fitzroy to drop out of his re-election race.

Fitzroy had come under pressure not to stand, and was ultimately snookered by the review proposals which said that no more than two existing board members should remain on the interim board.

The decision of former board member John Earley to stand again just a month after resigning left the senior officers in a tricky position. Fitzroy said he was "devastated" in an emotional speech.

Conway later indicated that Fitzroy would take up a role on one of the committees below the top table and could technically stand for an officer role further down the line.

The Fitzroy news came as no surprise to those delegates who attended the pre-event dinner in Knightsbrook on Friday evening. He was closest to the stage when Noel Mooney, the acting General Manager, gave a speech that showered praise on Conway and also urged the room not to forget the contribution of those departing board members. Fitzroy's name was included with the others.

"I know it's been a tumultuous time for the FAI but please do not forget the great work that you did," said Mooney. "That is left unspoken. I don't want it to stay unspoken."

After those formalities ended, Fitzroy spoke with members of the junior football fraternity, while Conway was locked in discussions with Cooke at a nearby table; they had worked together on a sub-committee established to deal with the fall-out from the turbulent months of March and April.

Ireland manager Mick McCarthy was at that dinner and broke from his script to pay tribute to Conway's work ethic, hailing the retired school teacher as "a real stand-up guy for the FAI and football".

Mooney went a step further by suggesting that the FAI president was actually one of the most inspiring people he'd ever met in the game.

"I've met many people in UEFA and many countries around the place and you are the one that I have been just blown away by," he gushed.

That said, Mooney's speech did sporadically stray into critical territory.

"Leadership is about setting the vision and the road we must travel together and bringing everybody with you on that journey," he said. "Management is about ensuring that the resources are put in the right place and handled correctly to ensure we can achieve our vision together."

He spoke of the importance of engaging with stakeholders like the players union, the PFAI, who had a fractious relationship with ex-CEO John Delaney, even though they operated under the same roof in Abbotstown.

Players' chief Stephen McGuinness was in the room yesterday, albeit without voting privileges. A year ago, the idea that he would be present at such a gathering would have been laughed out of town. Still, the PFAI candidate for the board, Stuart Gilhooly, was touched off in his constituency by Joe O'Brien from the Colleges FAI. Indeed, the striking aspect of all the constituency elections is that the newer delegates had little joy.

In the League of Ireland race - where six went forward in search of two spots - voters were given a paragraph on each candidate, but there was no window for the fresh faces to make a speech outlining their vision. Martin Heraghty (Sligo Rovers) and Dick Shakespeare (UCD) prevailed. Experience won the day.

All parties conceded that there will be more meetings of this nature to come in the months ahead. With rule changes to be processed and reports to be completed, the FAI will continue to remain in the spotlight. Another date in the Dáil is on the cards.

McLoone's basic point was that talking about change is one thing, but implementing it is another. A baffling legacy from recent years is the high level of security on site for this event - evident again yesterday. Conway, Cooke and Communications Director Cathal Dervan made their way to the post-event press conference with a security man shadowing their journey. Two more were waiting at the back of the room.

Unsurprisingly, the relevant parties all made a safe exit, and the FAI branding was eventually dismantled to make way for the evening event - a function to celebrate the exploits of dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll. Fitting, as the FAI remain immersed in a struggle that will be a serious test of stamina. There's no trace of a finishing line in sight.

FAI’s interim board

President: Donal Conway

Vice president: Paul Cooke

National Leagues: Martin Heraghty and Dick Shakespeare

Amateur Adult Football: John Finnegan and Dave Moran

Schoolboys and Schoolgirls: John Earley

Others and Affiliates: Joe O'Brien

Four further independent members will be added to the 12-person board in the coming weeks

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