Tuesday 22 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Niall Quinn's daft plan a throwback to Celtic Tiger'

‘Quinn says that his plan comes at a, “now-or-never moment,” which is what people always say when they know their idea is a really bad one but hope it might be hurried through without proper inspection’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘Quinn says that his plan comes at a, “now-or-never moment,” which is what people always say when they know their idea is a really bad one but hope it might be hurried through without proper inspection’. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Niall Quinn is chancing his arm. Nothing illustrates the parlous state of soccer in this country better than the idea that his top-of-the-head, back-of-an-envelope proposals are worthy of serious consideration.

Quinn's 'masterplan' for the domestic game is like something a few lads might come up with on a Sunday lunchtime as they wind down from a hard weekend. In a way that's what they are, given that Quinn's ideas were initially broached on The Marian Finucane Show, Ireland's premium venue for idle semi-informed middle-class chatter.

Emboldened by the fact that Marian and her crew will give a warm welcome to any kind of old rubbish providing it tips the cap to big business, the former Irish striker has expanded on his vision since then.

Remember those occasions when, for a jape, footballers would try and get song titles into interviews. Quinn's statements are like that but with corporate waffle. So we get the likes of, "big corporate social responsibility," "put something better on the table for our industry", and "getting a white paper together".

There's something almost touchingly retro about this stuff. It's a throwback to those halcyon Celtic Tiger days when any half-baked idea would be greeted as visionary providing that magic businessman fairy dust was sprinkled on it. That's why Niall says, "our industry," rather than "our game" or (perish the thought) "football". He wants to party like it's 2005.

Nothing is more redolent of Tiger times than Niall's big idea which is to raise the money needed for his planned 20 football academies by giving tax breaks to multinationals. More tax breaks for multinationals? In a country where the preferential way in which they're treated is already a major cause of public unease? Good luck selling that one, son. Maybe Apple might chip in, God bless them.

The multinational money would be combined with a big lump of state funding to provide the €40 million Quinn thinks necessary to set up the academies. There would be one at each League of Ireland club and they'd take part in a national league.

If this sounds vaguely familiar it's because this is the same system recently set up by the FAI. The best young players have been channelled into teams at League of Ireland clubs which take part in a national league and are planned to be centres of excellence funnelling players through to senior level.

Quinn's big idea is to replicate the current structure but with more money. Except he doesn't want the FAI to have anything to do with these teams and these leagues. Essentially, he wants the structure that's there at the moment to be broken up and then replaced by something which is exactly the same but with different people in charge, people who might (I'm taking a wild guess here) be Niall Quinn and his buddies from the business world.

Ever since the 2008 crash I've been a bit sceptical about the wisdom of businessmen. The American historian Anne Applebaum tweeted in 2017: "After this is all over, I never, ever want to hear again about how businessmen would run the government better than the politicians."

She was talking about Trump and there's something worryingly familiar about the way Quinn boasts: "I've got some really good people in touch from all walks of life, from multinational companies, from big education centres, from famous universities."

Famous universities? Really? How many famous universities are there? Oxford? Cambridge? Harvard? UCG? I'm drawing a bit of a blank after that to be honest but no doubt Quinn has a list.

Another key plank of the masterplan is an Immigration Investment Scheme which would involve more tax breaks for more multinationals so foreign players could be attracted to the academies. According to Quinn, we could lure Brazilians and keep them here long enough so they'd qualify for Ireland under residency rules.

This seems a somewhat odd way to promote underage Irish talent. Suppose the old IIS is a roaring success and we turn up loads of talented Brazilians. Are we going to have an international team composed entirely of Brazilians? Or will there be a cap on the number who'll be allowed to play for Ireland? How would we enforce this? By forced deportation if there were too many promising ones?

That might sound daft but it's no dafter than most of what Quinn has come up with. It's pub talk. Quinn says that his plan comes at a, "now-or-never moment," which is what people always say when they know their idea is a really bad one but hope it might be hurried through without proper inspection.

He won't be presenting his plans to the philistines at the FAI by the way. Instead, he says, the plan is to go to the Government in the hope that they'll put pressure on the FAI to deal with him. That strikes me as a questionable way to do business. The whole thing, with its unnamed big guns waiting to jump out of the woodwork once their friend Niall has put in a word for them, has the feel of a bygone era to it.

It's a proposal from an older Ireland. Nothing is more telling in this respect than Quinn's failure to even mention the women's game in this country, rapidly growing, full of potential but underfunded and underappreciated by the authorities. There's an area which badly needs fresh thinking yet Quinn has nothing to say about it. I suspect that when he talks about 'our industry' the workers he envisions are all male. Y'know, real footballers.

If Quinn's ideas are so patently daft, why waste time and space pointing this out? Because, for starters, they might cause a lot of trouble if taken on board by the politicians he wants to court. Fine Gael are always keen to do the corporate sector a favour and you could imagine Shane Ross thinking this stuff is just the ticket. I'm no fan of John Delaney but he survives at the top of the FAI because of support from those involved in the promotion of the game at grassroots level. For all his faults, Delaney knows how football works in this country. Quinn would need to do a lot better if he wants to oust him.

Some people discount Quinn's arguments because he's never before shown any interest in the League of Ireland. But middle-aged men are prone to unexpected new enthusiasms. I'm currently having great crack with a train set I bought the kids for Christmas. That doesn't mean they should let me drive the train from Cork to Dublin. Quinn's ideas shouldn't be ignored because he's an interloper. They should be ignored because they're ridiculous.

They're the latest in a long and ignoble line. There were the proposals that the League of Ireland should be handed over lock, stock and barrel to a PR company run by some dude named Fintan Drury, the mooted All-Ireland league, which would have omitted Sligo Rovers and Dundalk but included Galway United; the famous Dublin Dons idea to set up an English franchise over here which would probably have killed off the League altogether.

The Dublin Dons would probably have played in the billion-dollar-plus Bertie Bowl, another famously terrible idea. Yet at the time even the worst of these proposals were supported on the grounds that, "at least they're suggesting something different". Even Gay Mitchell found a few cheerleaders for his proposal to hold the Olympics in Dublin.

You might call this the Reverse Theresa May, the argument that a bad idea is better than no idea at all. But the economic crash was caused by people who thought in exactly that way and were empowered by those who'll cheer on any daft scheme if it's sufficiently 'bold' or 'visionary.'

Thinking like that landed us with the white elephant currently leaking money on the banks of the Lee. It should always be subjected to a healthy dose of scepticism.

The problem with Niall Quinn is that he perpetually seems to be running for office, any office. This was much in evidence when he accompanied his proposals with a populist swipe at Neil Francis for calling rugby "the people's game".

Rugby means nothing, said Quinn, to people in "Ballyfermot, the North Wall, Crumlin and Finglas". It probably doesn't and I'll bow to the superior knowledge of Niall, a rich man who I suspect moves in different circles.

Yet it's precisely areas like Ballyfermot, the North Wall, Crumlin and Finglas which are starved of meaningful sporting investment. You could build some terrific facilities there for the price of the tax breaks Niall wants to wangle for his multinational pals. Meanwhile, the state money he wants to fund his scheme would be taken not from rugby but from smaller sports which are underfunded as it is.

Get up the yard, Niall.

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