Thursday 22 February 2018

FAI's journey from strife to stability

The FAI has achieved a lot since John Delaney's term of office began in 2005, writes Seán Ryan

THURSDAY last was a good day for John Delaney, CEO of the FAI. It was good to be involved at the high end of the business, announcing a new sponsor for the national team -- and all done within the ambience of the brand-new Aviva Stadium.

It's over five years since Delaney assumed control of a troubled FAI. Back then, he listed his priorities as the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road, the establishment of an academy at Abbotstown, and the merger of the League and the FAI.

Two out of three ain't bad, but Delaney says what gives him most satisfaction is the stability which the Association has enjoyed in those five years. Previously, in-fighting and political warfare broke out sporadically; nowadays everyone seems to be singing from the same hymnsheet out at FAI HQ in Abbotstown.

The importance of this stability was brought home to Delaney on a visit to the annual UEFA meeting for General Secretaries. "Of the 53 countries within UEFA, 26 had changed their General Secretary," he says. "How can you achieve anything if you don't have stability?"

On several fronts, the FAI are now regarded as poster-boys among UEFA delegates. It's not only the stability, but their coaching initiatives, their ready acceptance of the club licensing system, their development of club facilities countrywide, and that new stadium, which have caught the eye at UEFA HQ.

In terms of improved revenue streams, Delaney believes the Aviva is a godsend. In the past, the FAI's revenue was totally dependent on the senior international team's fortunes. Now, he says, "the stadium allows us to hold events we couldn't hold before. We are planning a four-club tournament, we have the four-team international tournament, and the Europa League final in May.

"How that final came about is interesting. I brought Michel Platini to the All-Ireland hurling final, before he was UEFA president, and he couldn't get over it. Then I brought him to the stadium when it was just rubble and when I asked if there was any chance of a European final, he simply said, 'you build it, we'll come'. It was the first time a final was promised before the stadium was built."

Another development arising from that Croke Park visit was Platini's experiment of two extra officials at each end-line in Europa League ties. "That stems from seeing umpires in action and asking me what they were there for," said Delaney. The cross-fertilisation of ideas among sports is a healthy development, having also seen soccer's red and yellow cards adopted by the GAA, and the GAA's 'free from where the ball lands after a late tackle' adopted by rugby.

In 1996-'97, the FAI's turnover was €7m. The AGM in Wexford later this month will be told that turnover in 2009 was €50m, with profits of €3.6m. And a lot of that is due to a sponsorship portfolio, which has never been as strong. "Our sponsorship revenues have trebled in the last four to five years," says Delaney.

One of the principal beneficiaries has been the domestic League, which is now sponsored by Airtricity, with increased prize money and club debt greatly reduced. "We were ahead of most countries in applying the salary cap on wages, limiting them to 65 per cent of turnover. It's a tough journey, but it's getting us to a successful outcome.

"You should only spend what you can earn, yet some players were on four-figure sums and one was on €3,500. Shamrock Rovers now are a good example of how it can be done. Clubs need to get stronger in their communities, like junior clubs. If you bring in too many from outside, that sense of community is gone. If clubs get deeper into their communities, more people will come to their games, that will improve their finances and will make them more attractive to local sponsors."

However, it is when he talks about the FAI's development at grassroots level that Delaney really becomes animated. In the past five years, he has travelled to every corner of the Republic, and visited 800 clubs, so his view of the strength of the game comes first hand.

"We have invested heavily in development over the last five and a half years," he says. "We have 20 different programmes to allow everyone of every age, shape, race and creed to play, we have development officers in every county, and we have elite structures to bring the best players through.

"Our emerging talent programme ensures that the best are playing the best, there is continuous assessment, and they receive the best coaching and the best knowledge. An example are the U17 girls who were beaten in the European final on penalties, and who beat Germany, who had never been beaten before at that level in 23 games."

Delaney believes that all these programmes, which are under the charge of Dutchman Wim Koevermans, will keep our international teams competitive, "which we need to be."

A central part of that development has been the huge improvement in club facilities. Painting in the background, Delaney points out: "Football was primarily a garrison town game for the working class, and didn't produce revenue, but the success of the Charlton era and Premiership games being shown live in Irish homes marketed the game in a way that wasn't done before.

"Initially, we struggled with that growth but in the last four years we got €62m from the Department of Sport, and added to FAI contributions and local funding well over €100m has been put into the development of soccer and has transformed the game to the extent that you could bring the Irish team to Tipperary club, St Michael's, for instance, to train.

"Other examples from my travels are Broadford in Co Limerick, who went from a cattle truck, which was used for transport and changing gear, to a terrific nine-acre complex, and Glin Rovers who were formed under a tree 40 years ago -- they couldn't get a meeting house because it was soccer -- and now they have a lovely clubhouse. Our role is to support as many clubs as we can and it would be acknowledged that we have done that well over the last five years, but there's a lot more to be done."

Central to Delaney's thinking is the development of a trained coaching network. "In '96-'97, we had only two full-time coaching staff, now we have over 100, with 55 to 60 of those co-funded with local authorities. We are the first sporting body to use that concept, which went down well with county managers, and most of them said yes to co-fund, where we pay half and they pay half. They have all been re-affirmed because they are doing wonderful work in the community.

"Take Ballymun, for instance, where we ran a programme with Garda Youth Diversion. We ran a midnight soccer programme for four weeks in a row and the level of anti-social behaviour incidents dropped from 87 a night to 11. We stopped for one week and the level went back up to 68. That's a snapshot of what can be achieved. We're expanding that scheme to other parts of Ireland and the Gardaí would like us to run it nationally. They say it's the one sport that can do it -- that and boxing."

Two months ago, the Airtricity League clubs voted unanimously to stay under the control of the FAI at the end of the five-year cycle next year, so that leaves the Abbotstown academy as the one item on Delaney's agenda which remains to be achieved. "It's one of my goals for the next five years," he admits. On his record of achievement to date, not many will bet against it happening.

Sunday Independent

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