| 5.4°C Dublin


Daniel McDonnell: 'Three weeks that changed everything in Irish football'

Daniel McDonnell


Intense lobbying and negotiating has altered government's relationship with Irish football

Close

From left: Minister of State for Sport Brendan Griffin, FAI interim chief executive Gary Owens, Minister for Sport Shane Ross and FAI interim deputy chief executive Niall Quinn following Thursday’s meeting between the FAI, UEFA and Bank of Ireland officials. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

From left: Minister of State for Sport Brendan Griffin, FAI interim chief executive Gary Owens, Minister for Sport Shane Ross and FAI interim deputy chief executive Niall Quinn following Thursday’s meeting between the FAI, UEFA and Bank of Ireland officials. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

From left: Minister of State for Sport Brendan Griffin, FAI interim chief executive Gary Owens, Minister for Sport Shane Ross and FAI interim deputy chief executive Niall Quinn following Thursday’s meeting between the FAI, UEFA and Bank of Ireland officials. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Roy Barrett is a quiet man that has made a big impact. The managing director of Goodbody Stockbrokers was introduced to the FAI board on January 8 and quickly became the brains of their operation.

A day later, Niall Quinn spoke in vague terms about how he might be able to help out his associate. Within a fortnight, he was deputy interim CEO working with Gary Owens.

On Thursday, three weeks on from Barrett's first meeting with Ministers Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin, he was on the steps of their offices along with Owens and Quinn after announcing the €30million-plus rescue deal.

There was no sign of the board that had functioned as the bridge between last summer's AGM and the eventual appointment of Barrett, Liz Joyce and Catherine Guy to the top table.

In December, Ross told an Oireachtas Committee that the FAI had made a plea for €18m which wasn't credible.

From the outset, the minister was willing to listen to Barrett. Choreographed statements flagging his arrival hinted at winds of change.

When UEFA came to government buildings, the FAI's executive lead Paul Cooke was left across the road in Buswells Hotel while Barrett accompanied the Europeans to crunch talks.

With all the parties realising they had too much to lose from the FAI going bust, it was just a matter of thrashing out the right deal and Barrett was entrusted with crafting it.

In election year, the government was never going to allow doomsday unfold but it's quite a leap from that to doubling annual funding and signing off on a chunky interest-free loan.

It has raised eyebrows in other sporting bodies who would argue the FAI is being rewarded for failure.

The counterpoint is that the biggest participation sport in the country has been chronically underfunded and lacked savvy when it came to positioning themselves for projects that benefited other team sports.

In their chat with Ministers Ross and Griffin, League of Ireland clubs were basically told they were rubbish at lobbying and playing the game. They had placed trust in the wrong people to do that for them.

Meanwhile, Connacht Rugby were receiving an additional €10m from state coffers for their stadium project to match the original grant allocation from the infrastructure fund.

It's understandable that competing organisations (why is it always a contest?) point to the revenue streams available from UEFA and Owens went to Switzerland yesterday to find out more about that, but the FAI were able to argue that their sport - which ticks quite a few boxes given how accessible it is for all strands of society - needed a lift so it can maximise its potential.

"We have a chance to show Ireland the power and the value of football in this country," said Quinn.

The narrow window for negotiations was interrupted by activity which urged ministers to seek advice about how far they could go in asserting authority.

On January 15, the Irish Independent reported that ex-board member John Earley had been listed on the FAI's International/High Performance sub-committee and it was later confirmed that Jim McConnell and Noel Fitzroy, two members of John Delaney's final board, were nominated for similar roles.

This caused a stir in government circles and was the subject of early morning emails and phone discussions. "A wake-up call," as one well-placed source put it.

The new FAI hierarchy knew it was a problem, yet they had inherited governance reforms introduced last summer which arguably needed to be light touch to be approved. Committee places were never taken all that seriously because they had minimal influence.

But the penny soon dropped that this stuff mattered now.

Government were initially wary of making public utterances and there were slightly mixed messages with Ross describing Earley's return as an "unusual event" at a press briefing while refusing to elaborate.

Ross said "we can't do that" when asked if the government were in a position to reform Council structures.

However, department officials were engaged in ongoing talks with FAI staff, union representatives and other stakeholders and the message kept coming back that the schedule for governance reforms laid out last year hadn't gone far enough.

When it came down to working out the nuts and bolts of the deal, the government acted on concerns and put in clauses that make ex-board members ineligible for committees and guarantee that long-serving Council members will be phased out by the summer rather than staying on for another three years as originally stipulated.

This has caused predictable disquiet in affected areas and there were murmurs of a kickback in the aftermath but it's going to be hard to construct a case when €30m hinges on it. "We'll get nothing if they're not done," said Quinn, bluntly. There are other notable lines in Thursday's statements which are a product of what's unfolded over the past month.

A commitment to protect low and middle earners on the FAI spectrum is pointed and reflects the wishes of the rank and file for highly paid Abbotstown staff to be held accountable for their role in the implementation of day-to-day culture under the old regime.

The FAI's interim bosses and the independent directors have done their homework through any available avenues and got a handle on the view of employees.

Indeed, it's understood that Owens and his team will make provisions so they are able to deal with the cost of further severance packages if that's what it takes to make satisfactory changes.

Members of senior FAI management staff were out of the loop on when it came to Thursday's developments and that has set alarm bells ringing. And not without foundation.

The commitment to extra funding for the League of Ireland and Women's National League can be traced back to clumsy Ross and Griffin Dáil statements in December which suggested the shutters would go down if the FAI collapsed.

Such was the anger, it paved the way for direct contact between league representatives and government without the FAI acting as a buffer.

That will annoy other areas of the sport who fear they will be forgotten, but they must embrace this reality and find fresh faces of their own because any grouping headed by figures who penned letters in support of the Delaney regime now find themselves inextricably linked with that era.

One likely change that should please the schoolboy football fraternity is the abolition of the national U-13 league.

A switch to an U-14 version is a favoured scenario with this year's U-13 players staying with their teams for next term.

Perhaps that's an example of give and take, a microcosm of what this change is asking of Irish football.

In order to justify taking state money, the FAI must show what it is capable of giving back and make reform a reality rather than a box-ticking aspiration.

Indo Sport