Exclusive Video: 'John The Baptist' - Part 1
Behind the game of thrones: Documentary by Barry Egan with John Delaney, CEO, of the Football Association of Ireland
“John Delaney could run anything. John Delaney could run UEFA easily. He could run FIFA as far as I’m concerned – certainly better than Sepp Blatter [President of FIFA], and more honestly,“ Denis O’Brien tells me in his office.
“John Delaney understood the politics of the FAI – which was worse than the Chinese Communist Party. He understood. He wasn’t naive. He had vision,” Eamon Dunphy says in his front room in Ranelagh.
“The fact is he has a vision for the FAI and he has had this for quite some time. He is heavily involved in grass roots and he wants to see that succeed like you wouldn’t believe,” Martin O’Neill says in the boardroom of the Football Association of Ireland HQ in Abbosttown, Dublin.
“I think John is made of different characters really. He is a collage of people,” says Denis O’Brien. “You have got the administrator, the CEO, and then you have the sports buff, and then you have the personal touch.”
The Ireland football team play their first game of the Euro 2016 qualifiers tonight against Georgia away. In an ideal world, if the Ireland team had half as much belief as any of the above luminaries have in John Delaney then, perhaps, we’d qualify for the Euros without breaking sweat.
Tonight in the Boris Paichadze National Arena, Tbilis, is the start of an arduous journey (arduous mainly because Germany, numero uno at the recent World Cup in Brazil, are in our group along with Poland) that will hopefully see us in France in the summer of 2016. For this fly-on-the-wall documentary about FAI top man John Delaney, Independent.ie’s own journey started six months ago at his parents’ house in Kingswell, Tipperary...
After putting on a veritable feast of a lunch for me, Joan Delaney, sitting down at the large kitchen table, says that her famous son was born in 1967 on the 16th of October, “but he wasn’t due until November. But two weeks before, he decided to come!” she laughs.
“Joe and I travelled down to Waterford to the maternity hospital there. Joe deposited me, as they did in those days, and he said, ‘I will go down to the Dominican Church to say a prayer and I’ll be back in five minutes.’ So he got held up in traffic and when he came back in half in an hour after he left, John was born."
“John didn’t wait for me!” Joe Delaney laughs.
“That’s the first I heard of that!” laughs John.
“Then when he started to walk,” Joan continues, “he just didn’t walk , he ran! He was about a year old. It was a big long kitchen in Thomastown and he stood up on his feet and he just ran the whole way down the hall. He would run home from school. He came home one day with a bunch of daffodils. And handed them to me and said ‘Mam!’ Half an hour later a woman came up the road and said: ‘Who took my daffodils!’ ‘Was it your daffodils?’ I said [laughing]; ‘I don’t know! Someone gave me a present of some daffodils!‘”
“John is full of heart and he is soft,” Joan continues. “Years ago, we used to have people calling to the door looking for stuff. It was tradition. We always used to have a few regulars. And one day this woman came, and I’d given her four or five bundles of stuff. She said: ‘I need a little pair of shoes for my young fella.’”
“And the next thing was, John, who was small, sat down, took off his shoes and handed them to the woman. John was very soft like that.”
“He has a huge heart,” his mother adds. “The person you see on the Late Late and all that, there is a little bit more depth to him than that. He was very close to animals too. He would bring stray dogs home all the time.”
Joan goes and gets a fading old picture of John, aged 7 or 8, with his first dog, Blackie. And then a picture of John with the Pope in Rome in 1990.
“He introduced me to my husband when I was working for John in Kerry,” John’s younger sister Jane says (he has also an older sister Joanne and two younger siblings, Paul and Mary.)
“He has definitely a great wisdom. He didn’t get that from me!” Joe adds, as Joan shows me a picture of John as a baby.
“He comes from a business background,” says Denis O’Brien later that month in his office in Dublin. “He has run businesses successfully, diverse businesses, difficult businesses. So the FAI were fortunate that they were able to attract somebody of his calibre. You know, the fact that he also loves the game, and is in the most ideal job for him, probably, in his dreams - it is fairly good match.”
In December of this year, John Delaney will be ten years in his position as chief executive of the FAI. It has a decade of many highs and some lows – from Staunton to Trap, to Martin and a fella from Cork.
A month later in my house in Dublin John is waxing lyrical about how he got the big job at the FAI. “I became secretary first of Waterford United Football Club. My dad had been chairman in years gone by. So they asked me to join the board. So I became a member of the FAI National Council. Then I was voted ontothe board of the FAI in 1999. I became the youngest treasurer of the FAI in 2001. I was 33.”
What shape was the FAI in then?
“It was badly run, “ John says, unguardedly.
“It was a very badly run organisation. I think it was no structures, a 23-man cumbersome board. Everyone looking to sort out their own agendas for themselves. There was no real Muinteoir Scoile! Nobody really in charge. There were five officers with a big say. You had some of the staff members interfering in the politics of the organisation. You had some of the voluntary people executively almost involved. So it was a mishmash.”
“The sad thing in my time in the FAI,” John’s dad Joe explained to me another time, “was if you tried to change something and the fellas around the table, most of them were representing clubs or factions, and once you proposed to change something, the answer came out very sharply, you could see them thinking: ‘How is that going to affect my club?’ It might be for the good of football but that didn’t matter to them. It was never going to work.”
Eamon Dunphy puts this in context: “John’s father Joe and Louis Kilcoyne [a former FAI president who died in 2012) were the original guys who wanted to modernise things – look after the players, don’t go on dumb tours. Stuff like that. So when John came into the FAI he knew the landscape. And he knew what needed to be done and he had the courage to do it. The FAI was a total shambles before John.”
“And what really needed to be done was, first of all, the players had to be respected, they had to have good training facilities, and after Saipan where Roy complained about the players sitting in steerage class. Saipan was a classic example of a mess. But John changed all of that. And you wouldn’t have had the Aviva stadium project without John. That was very brave to go in there.”
"We never had our own football stadium. We were always borrowing places. There was Dalymount. People were nostalgic for Dalymount, but really it was a kip,” Dunphy laughs. “The Aviva stadium was a grand idea – unfortunately for the FAI, and that’s why they are in debt, the economies of the world collapsed, and this one [Ireland’s economy] most spectacularly. So they were caught a bit by that, But John had the vision to see it. And to go to the banks, to create the ticket schemes, to make it work financially. And it will work.”
Watch Part 2 tomorrow on Independent.ie