Thursday 14 December 2017

FAI pulls defeat from jaws of victory

John Delaney and the Football Association of Ireland have perfected the art of the own goal.

A week that should have been a public relations triumph -- the official opening of the Aviva Stadium and the coup of securing Manchester United for the first game -- turned to disaster.

The FAI's decision to exclude the United game from those hardy souls who have dug deep to buy ten-year tickets for the stadium was crass enough, but then came news that the FAI was using its powers to prevent Limerick from hosting an equally glamorous match against Barcelona.

What links the two decisions? Greed. Instead of rewarding those supporters who have handed over thousands of euro for ten-year tickets, the FAI cannot pass another opportunity to gouge more cash from their wallets. The same greed prevents Limerick from staging a game that would be a massive boost for soccer in the south west. Only the FAI, so it seems, may profit from big-name friendly matches and woe betide anyone who gets in the way of their money-spinning.

The desire for cash is understandable: the draw for the European Championships creates a distinctly unappetising fixture list, particularly if the team fails to perform in its early games. Getting as much money as it can by milking the appeal of the new stadium makes good business sense for the FAI, but there is no need for the control-freak mentality that denies others the same opportunities.

Limerick should be allowed to bring Barcelona to Thomond Park, and the FAI should be applauding the forward-thinking of a club that operates in rugby's heartland.

By blocking it, Delaney (pictured) creates the impression that the FAI wants to gazump its members, not support them. The monster that must be fed is the FAI's share of the new Aviva Stadium, and that will hang around the FAI's neck until the debts have been paid. Amidst all the hyperbole about the Aviva (it "heralds a new era in Irish sport", apparently) it is easy to forget that it is just a stadium, with much the same capacity as the old Lansdowne Road.

The new stadium falls between two stools, a victim of Irish sporting politics, indecision and Bertie Ahern's ambition to build a new national stadium in his own backyard. It could have been completed a decade ago if the IRFU had acted swiftly, but its hesitation was then compounded by Ahern's meddling.

The capacity limitations would matter less if the IRFU and the FAI could host their bigger matches in Croke Park, but the sale of the stadium naming rights to Aviva rules out a venue switch whenever demand exceeds supply.

A hard-nosed cost benefit analysis might question whether €410m represents value for money when replacing like with like, even if the result is pleasing to the eye and the stadium's bars can churn out a thousand pints of beer every minute.

Philip Browne, the chief executive of the IRFU, says that the new 51,000 capacity is "bang on" for rugby, which will come as a surprise to the 30,000 fans who will no longer be able to attend a rugby international, or a Heineken Cup semi-final. Browne could not be expected to say anything else, but he fools no one.

Rugby's popularity continues to grow, fed by the success of the provinces and by the national team. The new stadium has a capacity that would have been "bang-on" for the last century, but is well short of what the game needs for this century. The inevitable result will be ever-higher ticket prices for both soccer and rugby.

For the moment, neither Browne nor Delaney need worry because demand will exceed supply. Fans will grumble, but they will pay up. Longer term, though, the alienation of fans will gather momentum. The FAI could have checked its progress by offering United tickets to its ten-year loyalists and by allowing Limerick to host Barcelona.

Both the FAI and the IRFU could have gone even further if they had had the wit to negotiate a deal with Aviva (or another sponsor) that allowed Croke Park to be used for the biggest matches. It would have meant less money from the naming rights, but it would have been a sensible balance between profit and loyalty. It would have demonstrated that the FAI and IRFU had their supporters' interests at the very core of their policies and it would have been a public relations triumph. Instead, we get own goals and false bravura.

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