Tuesday 17 September 2019

David Kelly: 'Fans within rights to protest - whether FAI allow it will tell us if much has changed'

 

Mick McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mick McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The last time Ireland played Switzerland, apart from the fact you may struggle to recall what might have happened in a meaningless friendly, the FAI were slapped with a UEFA fine.

During the game in March, three years ago, the players wore jerseys bearing an Easter Rising symbol to mark its 100th anniversary. At the time, the Irish gesture came under scrutiny as part of the backlash into FIFA's refusal to allow the players of England and Scotland to wear black armbands carrying a poppy.

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Once you set aside, if you can, the moral hypocrisy of an organisation that deems Qatar a suitable World Cup host, the FAI were always likely to get punished.

It was the latest wheeze in a series of mis-steps by the FAI; a few years earlier, their chief executive John Delaney was forced to apologise for singing a rebel song in a Dublin pub.

Still, even if many suspected that he should be apologising for so much more, a policy of omerta and fear ensured that the organisation would keep stumbling on. Now we know they have plunged off the cliff.

Many of their public know much more now then they did then about the FAI and their ways, about the extravagant financial outgoings and the astonishing abuses of power, which prompted government, fraud and sporting investigations, as well as a loss of money and credibility.

Still, 40,000 tickets have been sold for tonight's crucial Euro 2020 qualifier as the Swiss roll into town once more; albeit, the FAI's manner of business tells us this doesn't always mean 40,000 people have tickets.

But in a week when more than 80,000 attended an All-Ireland final, and another sell-out crowd of over 51,000 are pitching up to wave farewell to Ireland's World Cup-bound rugby side this Saturday, it is not hard to work out at this moment where the FAI's international team ranks.

Nonetheless, were 40,000 to turn up, it would seem a healthy measure of support but, no more than in the past, the encouragement will be for the players on the field rather than any of the main FAI players off it.

The difference now is starker than ever; though it must be admitted that there remain some who still cleave to their opinions that there was nothing wrong with how the FAI went about their business in the last few years. Some of them are still involved, at different levels, in the FAI; many are not.

Most of tonight's crowd, however, will have become more engaged by the politics of the situation purely because the information has started to flow, mainly thanks to the covert, belated revelations from inside the FAI, where for years there was simply conspiratorial silence, from enemies and allies alike.

The last time Ireland played a qualifier in Dublin, against Georgia, the protest that spawned a series of tennis balls to be hurled on to the field did not go down well with the players or the manager.

That it managed to coincide neatly with Conor Hourihane's winner smoothed over something that might have been really contentious had Ireland dropped points in the game.

For the fans and the team to become embroiled in a dispute when the real target was the FAI would have been unfortunate in the extreme. And yet there are those who dismiss such fears; for some, their real fear is that Ireland qualifying for the European Championships, partly held in Dublin next year, would endorse the inadequate attempts of the FAI to reform.

Irish fans can't simply erase the past six months from their memory banks.

Ireland's qualification for major tournaments in the past has been good news for publicans and credit unions but not always for Irish football.

Mick McCarthy, like his players, has also tended to plead ignorance about matters which have taken place not a corner-kick away from where his side train every morning.

Without Delaney's support, though, McCarthy wouldn't have got the gig and the salary going with it; maybe that makes it easier to plead disassociation rather than being up front about this association. His job is a football one and his hopes this evening, like everyone else's, will be that the football remains the story.

The supporters, however, will be in their rights to protest his paymasters; for the FAI continues to stubbornly resist a changing of the old guard.

Whether the protests will be allowed is another thing. The FAI paid a financial price for the tennis balls incident; be it UEFA or FIFA, they are nothing if not indiscriminate.

The FAI declare that they are a new and open organisation but whether they will demonstrate that by allowing previously forbidden banners to be unfurled is questionable.

Perhaps they might seek to disqualify them by claiming they are a "political gesture".

Irish Independent

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