Sunday 20 October 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'How the cult of John Delaney somehow became a thing'

Ex-CEO John Delaney
Ex-CEO John Delaney
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"If you're going to give him some bit of credit, and I don't admire him at all, he was resilient but it took a wave of momentum to get him to finally accept stepping down."

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John Delaney speaks to Ray D'arcy about Sepp Blatter's FIFA exit in a 2015 interview.

It will go down in history that John Delaney left the FAI because his position became untenable in the aftermath of a series of controversies that brought his world crashing down around him.

The reality is that it should have been untenable long before that.

Perhaps the penny is dropping now, as the FAI relies on a substantial bailout from UEFA that is essentially protecting the Association from insolvency.

The events of the past six months have been costly. A series of reviews and mounting legal bills added to a financial situation that was already pretty grim. We will get full details when the FAI AGM resumes later this year.

"The real picture," as one source with a knowledge of what's coming phrased it.

As recently as last year, Delaney and the FAI were adamant the Association would be debt free by 2020.

This was going to be a triumphant riposte to the doubters who said that it wasn't possible. It reads like a sick joke now.

For many people involved with the sport, it's stomach churning to try and calculate how much Delaney earned during his period on the FAI's version of gardening leave.

His €360,000 wage was already contentious enough.

That was the work of the FAI Board who were content for Delaney to cement his position in the fall-out from the disastrous pricing of premium tickets for the Aviva Stadium, a shambles that would put the CEO of most businesses on a sticky wicket.

But he was no ordinary chief executive. That's probably the one thing that everybody can agree upon.

Profiling Delaney's time as CEO without reference to the biggest business project of his tenure would be an oversight.

In fact, it should be the starting point of any judgement of his tenure because every piece of spending that happened in the years that followed should be viewed through the perspective of the implications of that fiasco.

Delaney admitted in his last year that 'mistakes' were made in the pricing, which was a welcome if belated acknowledgement. And an understatement.

If a football manager had presided over results with such grievous consequences, they would have been shown the door. Maybe he was let down by his players, but leaders tend to go in these situations.

Gerry Ryan and Angie Best were present for the 'Vantage Club' launch in September 2008. Questions about the possible impact of an imminent recession were raised and batted away as the FAI launched an ambitious pricing strategy which was to pay for their commitment to the Aviva and reap long term dividends.

We were told, confidently, that Ireland's deep reserve of millionaires would splash out for tickets priced so ludicrously - €1,200 to €3,200 per annum for a decade where certain years might feature just one competitive match - that they were never going to sell.

The FAI claimed that 6,300 of the 10,000 tickets were 'gone' which is a very different word to 'sold'. 'Gone' also included tickets allocated to existing ticket holders from the old Lansdowne - who didn't have to pay a cent - and potential buyers who had shown interest.

Many didn't follow through on it. A handful had already passed away. Others played dead when the ticket sellers called them back. Direct debit purchasers began to cancel when they realised that the so-called hottest tickets in town were actually available on a once off basis for cosmetic purposes. Or available for free, if you had the right connections. Or just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Delaney didn't just come through that episode unscathed. He came out stronger, as one of the highest paid football administrators in Europe, with the backing of a 'football family' who were absolutely certain they were getting value for money, convinced that there was actually only one man capable of delivering deals for the most-played sport in the country. He was worth it, they said.

Delaney did take pay cuts early in the decade which were described as an attempt to show leadership.

His salary peaked at €450k, and we have since learned that there was expenses to add on top of that.

You'd have to wonder what John Delaney the Honorary Treasurer, his initial starting base on the board, would have made of a CEO with such an arrangement.

His backers said that highlighting the wage angle was classic Irish begrudgery.

'Fair f*cks to him' they said.

But the problem was that the cutbacks brought about by the Vantage debacle led to belt tightening that hindered investment and made lower paid staff vulnerable. Some were made redundant. Others were compromised by paycuts.

The women's team strike in 2017 grabbed headlines thanks to anecdotes about tracksuits being taken off in airports and handed back so they could be passed to another team. They were shocking to the public. But it didn't surprise those with a knowledge of the scene who could reel off countless other examples.

Yet it was a struggle to bring those grievances to the top of the agenda in a country that was easily won over by a high profile men's senior team manager and a couple of good results.

And the cult of Delaney somehow became a thing too. The peak of the nonsense came around the road to Poland in 2012.

Years from now, future generations will look back and wonder how it happened. How it was allowed to happen. And how some of the most willing participants almost saw the funny side of it all.

'Ohh John Delaney, he used to be a w**ker, but he's alright now' was a soundtrack song for that Poland campaign.

The story goes that he might even have sung it himself once or twice. Players were bemused, and sometimes amused.

There was the tie throwing into the crowd and the post-match laps of honour, quite a turnaround from a man who said in 2004 that "Going out on the pitch is not something I intend to do".

He made that statement in an interview that has aged spectacularly well.

"In all the organisations I've worked with, I've never seen so many checks and balances within a structure," he also declared.

As the CEO was being chair lifted around Europe by joyous fans and backslapped by members of the football family who should have informed themselves better, hard working staff were leaving below the radar - never to return.

"Families were destroyed," says one ex-FAI staff member, unable to contain their rage at the stories that trickled out earlier this year which exposed the largesse at executive level during this timeframe.

It was once said that Delaney could run anything. What we know is that he had the confidence that he could survive anything.

At the beginning of the storm that preceded his final whistle , he spoke in company about how he should have stayed put as chief executive rather than moving into the Executive Vice President role which - we were told - was recommended by the Jonathan Hall review.

The FAI seriously thought it was a PR masterstroke to release it just minutes after the Euro 2020 qualifier in Gibraltar.

This was a window where it was impossible to predict what the next e-mail might contain.

Who will ever forget the bizarre show of support from Delaney devotees through a series of similarly worded statements that only served to expose the dysfunction that existed in areas around the country.

Administrators sent out releases on behalf of their league without consulting all members. Individual teams found a way to get their message out. Eclectic mailing lists were compiled. The former CEO was referred to on first name terms, a sand sculptor and St Patrick's Day parade leader that brought light into lives. In the grassroots community, a 'Dear John' letter could actually mean the beginning of a working alliance.

On his rise to prominence, it's said that Delaney cultivated strong relationships with members of the media, a reality which led to discomfort further down the line. He was quick to remind old allies how 'disappointed' he was by their coverage.

This reporter never received one of those calls, sadly, having missed out on years where post-match chats with Delaney were apparently a major feature of the job.

In recent years, we did have one late night discussion in a Dublin nightspot that centred around the boundaries of media coverage of his tenure. There was agreement that any criticism related to his policy decisions was fair game, whereas any observations on his personal life were unfair.

A fair point, in broad terms, except that Delaney didn't appear to be particularly flustered when his private relationships became fodder for the showbiz pages. On the contrary, he was widely quoted.

While the 'difficult child' League of Ireland suffered prizemoney cuts which meant referees and affiliation fees exceeded performance related income for most clubs, they had a CEO discussing how he was 'like a father figure' to model Nadia Forde - as Delaney revealed to the Irish Sun in 2014.

L to r: Emma English & John Delaney Pics : Mark Doyle

Then we had his burgeoning relationship with Emma English, which led to the seemingly neverending series of 'bring your girlfriend to work' days which made her a familiar presence in the FAI delegation at official events.

She even got to meet Sepp Blatter in Vienna, a tale that was famously regaled by Delaney in the aforementioned interview with Ray D'arcy.

"He stared at her for seven or eight seconds and said 'I approve of your new girlfriend'...I just asked him to move on. Just move on please," Delaney said. "It was an extraordinary moment."

Not as extraordinary as Delaney's partner travelling back on a charter flight straight to Dublin after a match with the team while FAI staff queued in the same airport for roundabout trips home via connections. These quirks became the new normal.

The now infamous 'John The Baptist' documentary offered an insight into the high powered lifestyle of the main man.

Interspersed between highlights such as Delaney explaining how he was off to meet the Queen, and his mother detailing how a young John had selflessly donated his shoes to 'an itinerant', there was pertinent stuff on governance too.

"What I've tried to do, with the support of a small board, is try and make everything issue based and not personality based," said Delaney, perhaps forgetting that he was featuring in a production that likened him to a Biblical prophet.

There is no suggestion, of course, that any of those idiosyncrasies prevented Delaney from being good at his job.

And there were times where observers wondered if there were actors around the king that fed the beast by trying to curry favour.

A Clones Town representative explained on Liveline that the club's committee went to the man himself with the news that they would be calling their new facility John Delaney Park. He didn't say no to the tribute.

But there were stranger episodes, little things that sound trivial but actually say a lot about the workforce instincts.

Take, for example, the frequency with which clubs were notified by FAI acolytes and told that it might be worthy to thank Delaney by name in any press releases that dealt with the announcement of a particular piece of news or initiative. In one case, this even extended to a minute's silence.

It's understood that he would have preferred a longer departure statement than the short four paragraph effort that was low on achievements.

Regardless of that, he will go down as one of the most thanked CEO's in football history. And there should be FAI employees feeling sheepish about that.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest PR masterstroke was turning the FAI's staid AGM into a week long Festival of Football in a chosen county.

In the journey around the country, it was always stressed that they were bringing the gig out of Dublin - pushing all the right buttons for delegates who felt that their sport had been run out of the capital for too long.

Former FAI staff member Mick Pender described the 'Vengabus' that would roll from town to town to dish out grant funding and bring legends and recognisable faces - with Delaney in that bracket - to places where they weren't used to a sprinkling of stardust.

Their gratitude was genuine and even critics of Delaney would acknowledge that he could work the room brilliantly in these situations. That did help some of the clubs in question to entice additional interest from local businesses.

In this respect, Delaney's departure will leave a gap. He visited 2,000 clubs during his time, a remarkable statistic, albeit one that should be of little relevance to the job description of the leading executive with a company with a €50m turnover. Those ceremonial duties should be carried out by a president.

It's easy to predict that the ongoing establishment of a new executive structure, detached to some degree from the old school committee system, will quickly lead to accusations of aloofness if the flesh isn't pressed to the same degree.

There will be challenges ahead, that much is sure.

But there is excitement too, because of the longer term opportunity presented by the formal end of an era which wrapped the identity of the FAI around the image of an administrator and ostracised those who raised objection to it.

One area where there was no visible evidence of cutbacks was in the security department.

The singing section at Lansdowne was always heavily populated, and the confiscation of banners both home and away left a sour taste. Busy men in walkie-talkies even became an integral part of the AGM, an event where the most plausible threat of danger was a stampede of grey haired gents causing a pile-up on the way to lunch.

Guaranteeing that the press went through a separate entrance seemed to be the main task for the hired help. They were just doing their jobs, of course, but it always smacked of a spectacular waste of time and money. Sensitivity was rampant. It has emerged recently that over 200 fans had been blocked by the FAI's Twitter account.

The AGM will never truly be the same again. In 2015, one delegate announced that Delaney was the 'best signing' the FAI had ever made, a statement that drew a standing ovation.

This wasn't even factually correct, given that he was actually a product of their youth system.

After all, he first arrived onto the scene as Joe Delaney's son. His father was the FAI Honorary Treasurer who stepped down from the association's board in 1996 off the back of another saga, the 'Merriongate' saga, that concluded with his resignation.

Delaney Snr had paid a six figure sum out of his own pocket to a ticket tout named George The Greek in order to wipe out a shortfall in the FAI's World Cup ticket account.

That episode had a big impact on Delaney, who set about climbing the Association's ranks and quickly succeeded in doing so, before raising the family bar by graduating to the UEFA Executive Committee two years ago.

His departure before Euro 2020 comes to Dublin, a showpiece that would have represented his crowning glory, could be pitched as a sad story.

However, it's best to reserve sympathy for those individuals who left the FAI with a broken spirit and emptier pockets.

Imagine their anguish as Delaney's defence of his exorbitant earnings become a quip on the light entertainment circuit.

"Have you ever been offered a bribe," D'arcy asked Delaney, in the aforementioned 2015 interview.

"Not on my salary," Delaney quipped in reply.

He always found favour in Official Ireland, possibly comfortable in the company of figures whose wages were even more questionable than his own.

Until April, the Dail was a home fixture where he was always guaranteed a warm welcome. When initial Sunday Times revelations broke, radio viewers were treated to a defence of the indefensible with Marian Finucane wondering what the fuss was about and Eamon Dunphy not exactly disagreeing. Two relics of a bygone era defending another.

Dunphy has since admitted that he took the eye off the ball to a degree, conceding that he wasn't energised by coverage of the finances around the Aviva Stadium construction because he was just so happy that Irish football had a nice new home. Delaney's FAI adventure could easily be weaved into a Celtic Tiger anthology.

Nobody truly knows how long it will take the game here to recover from this self-inflicted recession.

The KOSI audit commissioned by Sport Ireland is due in the next week. Mazars are due to complete their work by November.

Unflattering outcomes are anticipated. It could still get very uncomfortable for the FAI survivors that have any link to the old order.

Nevertheless, after being held in a tight grip for so long, the freedom should now properly exist to breathe new energy into the organisation.

In Delaney's old office in Abbotstown, it's understood that a section of his possessions have been packed away in a corner, ready for collection whenever matters were resolved.

They include the full sized cardboard cutout of Delaney in an Ireland shirt, the centrepiece of a lavish 50th birthday celebration that personified the absurdity of this stage in the FAI's journey.

There will be pain in the clearing out of lingering baggage. For Irish football, the hope is that the darkest hour truly does become before the dawn.

Online Editors

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