Monday 16 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Football's grassroots should speak up'

‘Donal Conway and the FAI aren’t budging. As far as they’re concerned, Sport Ireland, the Dáil Committee, the media and the public can take a hike’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
‘Donal Conway and the FAI aren’t budging. As far as they’re concerned, Sport Ireland, the Dáil Committee, the media and the public can take a hike’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

One of the final scenes of the brilliant Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy finds the titular lunatic about to leap from a great height after attacking the character he's been stalking for most of the movie.

"Don't do this. You just need help. We all get lonely," says his victim. "But I get really lonely. I mean, look at me. Come on," replies Carrey.

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All sporting organisations get things wrong. But the FAI gets things really wrong. I mean, look at them. Come on.

After months of being told they need help, the FAI have decided against taking that advice. As far as they're concerned it's the outside world that has things wrong. Carrey's Chip Douglas, a self-absorbed underachiever with a tenuous grip on reality who doesn't really care what harm he does to himself or others, would sympathise.

In the past week, the FAI decided to ban journalists from yesterday's Extraordinary General Meeting and to go ahead with the following week's Annual General Meeting even though the accounts for last year will not be available to delegates. At that AGM they plan to re-elect Donal Conway as president with nobody standing against him. That's despite the preference of Sport Ireland, who won't release funding to the FAI unless there are drastic administrative reforms, for a clear-out of the board. Conway, who's been there for 14 years, is going for re-election regardless.

Head of Sport Ireland John Treacy thinks Conway shouldn't stand. Minister for Sport Shane Ross has written asking him not to stand and believes he's acting in bad faith by doing so. Meanwhile, Conway is refusing to appear before the Dáil Committee on Sport until after the AGM, though he did offer to meet with its chairman Fergus O'Dowd in private.

O'Dowd thinks that Conway shouldn't stand, that the entire FAI board should be replaced and that journalists should have been allowed to attend the EGM. Yet Donal Conway and the FAI aren't budging. As far as they're concerned, Sport Ireland, the Dáil Committee, the media and the public can take a hike.

This attitude essentially renders the EGM meaningless. It was held to vote on changes in corporate governance which Sport Ireland have requested be made before they will release money to the FAI.

The problem is that the nomination of Conway and the contempt shown by the FAI towards the media and the Dáil Committee already indicate the organisation's determination to flout the spirit of the proposed changes.

Without an alteration in attitude by the FAI, these changes are piddling little things of minimal interest to anyone but the most hardened governance junkies. Whether they were passed or not is now beside the point. It would be both utterly irresponsible and embarrassingly weak for Sport Ireland to restore FAI funding on the basis of these changes alone.

The average fan doesn't really care whether there's increased League of Ireland representation on the board or whether four women are appointed to it. Given the FAI's obduracy over the last week, it's pretty clear that under current leadership such appointments will hardly include many dissenting voices.

Let's remember how the current imbroglio began. Which was with FAI CEO John Delaney going to the High Court in April to try and take out an injunction against a story written by Mark Tighe being published by The Sunday Times. He failed and we learned about a mysterious €100,000 loan given by Delaney to the FAI.

The FAI first claimed that the Board knew all about the loan and then, just before going in front of the Dáil Committee on Sport, claimed that they hadn't. The board also created a new job, Executive Vice President, for Delaney which would enable him to step down as CEO but retain his plum role on the UEFA executive committee. This was seen, fairly or not, as nothing more than an attempt to cover Delaney's arse.

Further revelations followed. We learned that the FAI were paying the rent on Delaney's house, that the CEO had racked up €40,000 on his FAI credit card in a six-month period and that he had instructed the Association's finance department to pay €60,000 in 'professional fees' to one Susan Keegan who was his girlfriend at the time.

The FAI initially failed to explain what the payment was for, but Tony Dignam, who'd been finance director at the time, later said that it had been 'agent's fees.'

The FAI haven't been very keen on explanations. They've never answered, for example, the question of why that untrue statement about their knowledge of the loan was made. A recent press conference was presaged by the statement that no questions about Delaney would be answered.

Donal Conway has been to the fore of this stonewalling. Which is why it's frankly laughable to see him being praised for his efforts in trying to push through these new administrative changes. Because even if these are implemented, it doesn't give the FAI a clean bill of health. The questions from the Delaney era must still be answered. If they are not answered, the make-up of the FAI Council is irrelevant.

Eamon Dunphy once memorably railed against the 'decent skinmanship' which bedevilled discussion of Irish soccer. Some of that has been in evidence since the arrival of Noel Mooney as temporary replacement for Delaney. You hear about what a nice guy Noel is and how he's been meeting lots of people.

Mooney has even said a few populist things about how he hasn't always been pleased with the FAI. But one thing he hasn't done is directly criticise John Delaney. On that subject, in the words of Rabelais, "it was no more possible to draw a word from him than a fart from a dead donkey."

No-one in the FAI has distanced themselves from Delaney. And if they can't find it in themselves to do that, how likely is real change at the helm of the organisation?

Treacy and Ross both agree Delaney should not have been replaced by his protégé, which Mooney effectively is. But the FAI seems to have little respect for the opinion of either Sport Ireland or the Minister. Conway's behaviour suggests the Association is confident their opposition will blink first.

Perhaps they will. Sport Ireland's suggestion that the administrative changes will suffice for the resumption of funding reminds me of Douglas Hurd's comment about the hapless Tory government of Ted Heath, "wandering over the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to." Given that so many other substantive issues remain unaddressed, you wonder if the regulatory body might be content with the mere appearance of victory.

But maybe they'll hang tough and continue the funding freeze. In which case we'll hear about the effect the loss of this money is having on the game at grassroots level. The FAI will take the 'hit me now with schoolboy football in my arms', line.

We'll be enjoined to have sympathy for the kids affected by such a shortfall and told that their clubs are being punished for something which isn't their fault.

My sympathy is running out. The very same grassroots have allowed themselves to be represented by officials and delegates who, when Delaney was under pressure, queued up to pay tribute to the man. These men represent local leagues so if their actions result in your club being starved of funding, it serves you right.

Because there's another way of going about things. In the run-up to the 2005 GAA Congress, all the motions in favour of opening Croke Park up to other sports were ruled out of order. Enraged by what they saw as interference with the democratic process, clubs and county boards across the country demanded that the motions be reinstated and a vote taken.

This took just a matter of weeks and though then president Seán Kelly played a big part in having the motions reinstated, the impetus had come from the grassroots. Their fervour resulted, a few months later, in a decision which heralded a new ecumenical spirit in Irish sport and, incidentally, got the FAI out of a hole.

There's been no such grassroots rebellion in the FAI, no significant dissenting voices within the organisation. Which makes me wonder if the reason the GAA had Croke Park and the FAI no stadium of its own is that the former has always been much better run than the latter.

Maybe Irish soccer deserves John Delaney and a presidential election with one candidate and an Association which has problems getting its books done. Maybe the grassroots are happy acting like serfs instead of citizens and allowing their game to be run this way.

Have you no shame? I mean, look at yourselves. Come on.

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