Monday 21 October 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Debt crisis is the gloomy incentive for Euro 2020 joy'

The bottom line for the FAI is paying bills - not planning investment in the game

High Stakes: Aaron Connolly and Alan Browne during yesterday’s Rep of Ireland training session. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
High Stakes: Aaron Connolly and Alan Browne during yesterday’s Rep of Ireland training session. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

For the bean counters in the FAI, every day must feel like Budget day. A year of chaos has raised viable questions about the projections for the sport going forward, and there is widespread expectation that the belated release of the 2018 accounts in November will paint a bleak picture.

At the first session of the AGM in the summer, FAI president Donal Conway did make reference to how Euro 2020 qualification could help things "swing in a positive direction".

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And with a €9.25m reward for qualifiers, a rise from the basic €8m in 2016, it's fair to say that Mick McCarthy is preparing his side for a high-stakes double-header.

It's just a shame that a valid description of the upside of getting there would be to ease the burden of stadium debt, legal bills, settlement deals and slow down the advance drawdown of future revenue.

That's not exactly a catchy tag line.

But that is where the FAI are at the moment post the John Delaney era. Officials have already admitted that UEFA may have to give them more than €10m in the space of 12 months.

John Delaney. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
John Delaney. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Instead of drawing down advance funds on centralised TV deals and other UEFA programmes to pay the bills, a place in the finals would mean that the FAI would receive cash from European football's governing body that was a product of success as opposed to a horrible failure.

Of course, the FAI haven't budgeted for qualification from Euro 2020. They have consistently stated as much.

An association with their playing pool could never plan ahead with such confidence.

But they can hardly deny that they are desperately in need of the cash and that brings its own pressures.

After all, experience has taught them that the €9.25m won't actually go that far.

In 2016, the French pot eventually reached €11m due to performances at the finals. That amount was quickly chopped down by bonus payments to management and players and the suggestion around that period was the FAI cleared something in the region of €4.5m, although all of the financial dealings from that era are not clear.

It was known that servicing debt was high on the priority list. While other countries such as Iceland were outlining how their pot would be spread out amongst clubs, the FAI had to be a bit more circumspect when pressed on where the money might go.

In the context of the bigger picture, it was like getting four numbers up in the lotto rather than landing the jackpot.

Donal Conway. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Donal Conway. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Football on these shores has always teetered on the brink of some crisis or other, and a history of modest State funding means that the biggest generator of revenue is the senior men's team.

The monetary consequences of results has been a story interwoven with exploits on the pitch for decades.

But it's become even more pronounced in recent times, and this is why the outlay on expensive managers and assistant managers was deemed justifiable.

The game might be on its knees, but the logic was that these contracts were worth it because the recipients might somehow deliver the outcomes that bring the FAI closer to stability.

No expense is spared for that team.

Yet the real definition of progress, as strange as it may sound, is when the FAI can afford to have a bad campaign on the pitch and not have to worry about grievous implications.

That is the economics of football when it comes to promotion and relegation, with staff wondering about their jobs if things go wrong, but that really shouldn't be the case for national associations.

McCarthy has noted morale levels of Abbotstown, highlighting how it would be nice to put a smile back on faces.

Euro 2020 could be huge on a number of levels, as it would provide a focus for recovery efforts centred around convincing sponsors that the FAI brand is still worthy.

But relying on one team to lift spirits and alter perceptions is a mindset that Irish football simply must escape.

The Stephen Kenny project is a chance to break away from it, but a slow start would doubtless lead to counter arguments about the cost of transition.

Deep down, the feeling lingers that the game here is locked into a results-dependent model, a legacy of a regime that left a mountain of debt that was downplayed as a molehill.

The FAI now acknowledge it could be over a decade before debt-free status is achieved and, once that cloud lingers, it will be impossible to state with certainty that strong results will lead to purposeful investment.

Instead, it's a desperate attempt to find some light at the end of the tunnel. So if all goes well over the next month, don't be fooled by any headlines about a cash windfall for the FAI.

It's far more complicated than that.

Irish Independent

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