Wednesday 16 October 2019

David Kelly: 'Delaney created FAI in his own doomed image'

Power former chief executive secured eventually became instrument of his downfall when promised reforms in association failed to materialise

Changing times: Attending a meeting with the Oireachtas Committee on Sport at Dáil Éireann back in April were, from left, then FAI interim chief executive Rea Walshe, FAI director of public relations and communications Cathal Dervan, FAI president Donal Conway, then FAI board member and honorary treasurer Eddie Murray, then FAI executive vice-president John Delaney and FAI director of competitions Fran Gavin. Below, the then Ireland manager Brian Kerr chats with Delaney in 2003 – Kerr went on to become one of Delaney’s chief critics. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Changing times: Attending a meeting with the Oireachtas Committee on Sport at Dáil Éireann back in April were, from left, then FAI interim chief executive Rea Walshe, FAI director of public relations and communications Cathal Dervan, FAI president Donal Conway, then FAI board member and honorary treasurer Eddie Murray, then FAI executive vice-president John Delaney and FAI director of competitions Fran Gavin. Below, the then Ireland manager Brian Kerr chats with Delaney in 2003 – Kerr went on to become one of Delaney’s chief critics. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ultimately, nothing became John Delaney's tenure as the most powerful man in Irish football like his leaving of it.

He might never have expected it would end like this but if he knew anything about the organisation he worked for - and he knew almost everything about the organisation he worked for - the end was inevitable.

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Brian Kerr with John Delaney back in 2003. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Brian Kerr with John Delaney back in 2003. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

To understand how Delaney's career in the FAI spluttered to its unseemly end it is necessary to understand how it began. For his entire football existence begat his entrance, just as it prompted his exit.

His rise and demise merely followed the rise and the demise of another.

But the true irony is that it was the FAI itself, the organisation through whose ranks he had risen to the very summit, and which had provided him with the oxygen of smooth passage into Europe's sporting elite and an unfathomable addiction to celebrity, which would ultimately lead to his downfall.

The body politic which he had done so much to shore up for his benefit, to ensure that his position became virtually infallible, became the very instrument of his own fallibility.

Which is not to say that the FAI which ended his career was any stronger than that which had forged it.

If one can forget - and it is quite difficult - the extraordinary circumstances which led him to that cold, calculated congress in west Dublin last spring, predating a slow saga that finally ended with the swish of a lawyer's pen on Saturday evening, it is hard not to escape the view that this was a re-run of an old, so familiar show reel.

True, the split in the FAI board between those who knew about the now infamously unexplained €100k loan and those who didn't served as a catalyst but those of us who have followed the FAI's serpentine history recognise the pattern.

It is of an association unwilling to change itself, especially when demanded to do so by meddling outsiders, be they consultants, politicians, supporters or sporting administrators.

After all, Delaney's appointment, itself a result of a ruthless purging by the FAI of his predecessor, Fran Rooney, derived from such similar circumstances.

Then, as now, it was an association cosmetically seeking to change itself to fit what others deemed necessary, but instead emerging as one impervious to the changes demanded, perpetually circling wagons in attempts to shrug off perceived outside interference.

John Delaney's vision, once, was to veer the FAI away from this self-destructive course but how could he ever possibly do so, when he himself was a very product of historical dysfunction, indeed when the very nature of it coursed through his family's veins?

If the FAI couldn't manifestly present a different version of themselves, then neither could he. It could have been so different had he truly grasped the nettle and effected the reforms that, once, he himself had championed during his rise to prominence.

If anything, he had staked his political credentials on effecting such a revolution. Instead, he allowed his career progression to be determined by the very circumstances that not merely created it, but which destroyed it too.

Few will shed sympathetic tears for his is a fall worthy of Icarus, a humbling dripping in hubris for he would have been the first one to recognise that the organisation he left for the last time this weekend is to all intents and purposes the exact same one he walked into all those years ago.

He did so a much younger man, a much braver one too.

Back in 2002, those of us who were marooned in Saipan - Irish football's equivalent of 'Nam - including most of the FAI, had become as enraptured as the nation back home who were getting to know the fop-haired, free-speaking accountant whose dour exterior seemed to mask a sharp intellect and eye for the main deal.

Saipan sparked more than merely a footballing civil war; it also spawned what should have been a new era for a body seemingly addicted to self-harm, riddled with petty in-fighting.

The government of that day, aside from Bertie Ahern's self-serving attempts to intervene in the Roy Keane affair, were as interested in FAI reform then as they have been to this very day.

But while governments came and went, and Sport Ireland underwent name changes, the FAI's attempts to reform never accumulated to a whole lot more than merely window dressing.

The Irish public witnessed the mundane mannequins for themselves in the Dáil last summer.

Visionary

Delaney had once freighted an expectation that things would be different; Ireland needed a visionary after Dr Tony O'Neill's sudden, tragic loss in 1999 and when the Waterford United delegate replaced him on the Board of Management, many of us presumed it would be him.

Delaney presumed so too. Wholly self-sufficient in business, he never needed the money - did there come a time when he did? - but instead was inspired by a vision for change, prompted by events in Saipan which had exposed an unwieldy association unable to respond in a crisis.

After his election as the youngest honorary treasurer in 2001, five years after witnessing his father's undignified exit from the same role following the infamous ticket touting scandal, Delaney never claimed to be a vengeful figure, but a crusading one.

At the time, this writer was a Sunday journalist and, with like-minded colleagues from other newspapers, he courted our willing engagement with this vision, specifically his desire to implement Genesis.

Briefings which had been initiated even before the World Cup revealed a man who was eager to get on with the business of reform but the business of survival was his first task.

A row about an outstanding bonus payment to Mick McCarthy, who had resigned his post in late 2002, almost scuppered his ascension to the throne before it began after a contentious board meeting in the Red Cow Hotel.

We spent a lot of times in smoke-filled hotels back then. The first threatening letters to newspapers reflected what would become a familiar trend in later years. We moved on to another hotel and Delaney survived.

McCarthy's successor, Brian Kerr, was not the choice of Delaney - he voted for Bryan Robson - and the pair would develop a spiky relationship, sundered completely when Kerr's contract was not renewed in 2006.

By this time, the FAI's first CEO, a key recommendation of Genesis, businessman Fran Rooney, had seen his volcanically brief reign end in a UCD car park, the chief charge a failure to enact necessary reforms.

Not for the first time, or indeed the last, the government invited the FAI in for a dressing-down while the Irish Sports Council (fore-runner of Sport Ireland) were also keen to nudge the FAI along. So too was Delaney, as he entered the full-time role of CEO in 2005, aged just 37. A new broom.

The message was that nothing would ever be the same again. We have learned that this has most certainly been the case.

Kerr was not the only one who found himself ostracised by Delaney, who shored up a constituency predicated on hoovering up grassroots' support, as well as forging high-level contacts internationally. The squeezed middle, notably the League of Ireland, would become estranged.

It had started so promisingly, Delaney steering a steady ship, increasing income, calming the chaotic League of Ireland; a key plank of Genesis, however, independent board representation, would remain notably untouched.

However, despite the steady rise in turnover, the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road and two Euro qualifications, notable mis-steps - from Steve Staunton through to the Thierry Henry payment, the misguided Vantage Club scheme and a series of high-profile faux pas - pockmarked his reign.

Through it all, he maintained the stoic loyalty of the FAI Board, to whom he always deferred when unpopular decisions were being made, and the wider football family, whose obsequious obeisance at every summer AGM seemed redolent of a Soviet-style congress.

We lost count of the men (and women) who pledged to voice opposition, either privately or publicly, before losing their nerve.

Delaney restricted access to real journalists who sought to probe where others in the FAI feared to tread and instead appeared in a David Brent-like video for the 'Sunday Independent' or, on another occasion, told Sky that he had been offered three times his exorbitant salary elsewhere but had refused to leave.

Exorbitant

The personal and professional John Delaney fused as one, often comically, particularly when engaging with Irish supporters.

For staff who lost their jobs or who suffered swingeing pay cuts, though, his exorbitant salary and celebrity lifestyle seemed hopelessly out of touch.

He made it seem as if those in Irish football couldn't afford to be without his presence and, with rare exceptions amongst those already excluded from the "family", Irish football made itself believe it couldn't do without him either.

But in the end even Delaney discovered that he couldn't play the long Game of Thrones forever. The end came for him just as the beginning had done.

The power he had secured became the very instrument of his downfall; the pliant FAI board which had sheltered him for so long suddenly exposing him.

One day last summer, as the fires were raging, I bumped into him in the Aviva Stadium, a field of dreams that hangs like a financial millstone around Irish football's neck, and he was his usual, ebullient self.

"I thought you'd be keeping your head down this week!" He smiled and shook his head as if its wily mind contained a certainty that things would work out the way they always had for John Delaney and the FAI.

And, in a way, he was right about that.

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