“I thought he was very engaging,” Denis O’Brien says of John Delaney, “I think first impressions are something that are important with somebody. My impressions of him were that he was astute, he was smart and he was ambitious for Irish football.”
That ambition was to sky-rocket with the bold arrival of a certain Italian in February 2008 - and, crucially, with the financial assistance of Denis O’Brien.
“I first came across John,” Denis says, taking up the story, “I think we were beaten by Norway or Cyrus 4-nil! I rang up Kieran Mulvey [then The Chief Executive of the Labour Relations Commission, now Chairman of the Irish Spots Council) and I said: ‘Kieran, do you have John Delaney’s number?’ And he said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Are they going to change managers and if they are, do they want a sponsor?’”
“And then I had Eddie Jordan yakking in my ear every five minutes” Denis recalls with laughter at the memory – and doing the hand motions of Mr Jordan yakking in his ear - “‘Ring him! Ring him!’”
“Eventually, I got in touch with John. John thought it was a spoof first of all!” he laughs.
“Eventually we had a conversation and then we met up. I said to him, ‘Look if you’re ever considering getting a top notch European manager or wherever they’re from and you need a sponsor, I’d be interested in doing it. Then he came back to me and said, ‘We may be making a change. We may have to go fairly heavy to get a very good manager.’ In that case, it was Trapattoni.’”
“I didn’t have a view on who they were going to employ because that would be really dangerous. All I said was ‘Look, I’m good for it if you need the help.’ And then he came back to me and said, ‘we’re going to go with someone’. Then he told me Trapattoni and I said: ‘Jesus, that’s heavy.’ They went and hired Trapattoni and Tardelli . It was a good combination,” added Denis, who under a deal negotiated before the appointment of Trapattoni in 2008 agreed to part-fund the wages of Trapattoni and Tardelli (and then last year, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane’s salary as well.)
“Before John Delaney, the FAI would always go for the cheapest manager,” says Eamon Dunphy, sitting in his front room in Dublin. “Trapattoni had the best CV in the world. He was expensive. 1.8 million. Which was probably the biggest salary of any coach in Europe, or close to it. The FAI before John Delaney would have balked at that.”
“Even though Giovanni Trapattoni didn’t work out in my opinion - although he got us to the Euro 2012 Finals, he didn’t really work out. But the cost of him, Marco Tardelli – Liam Brady was in there too – to take that on was brave. It showed ambition and vision. The same with Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane. Roy Keane had been scathing about Delaney over the Saipan thing and other things, but John bit the bullet. No hard feelings.”
Most of us, however, didn’t know how to feel when Ireland were hammered 6-1 at home by Germany (M. Reus 32’, 40’, M. Özil 55’, M. Klose 58’,T. Kroos 61’, 83’) in October, 2012. John says that he was glad “when the final whistle was over, so you could hide your grief. It could have been anything. We were 6 down at one stage. That was a difficult time.”
“You have good days and you have bad days in football,” says Denis O’Brien. “Ok, losing by that margin was a tough one to swallow but at that stage we just weren’t playing well for whatever reason. To lose by that margin wasn’t great but I think every manager has a period of time with a team, and sometimes that comes to an end. There were many years of great performances that Trapattoni had got out of the team. So…look...all the good things have to come to an end.” That once glorious era of Trap came to an end in September last year.
“Trapattoni did work out and it was a brave appointment by the organisation,” says John in his house in Malahide. “And it couldn’t have been done without Denis O’Brien’s support obviously. The take on this one,” he says meaning the dream-team appointment of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane as manager and assistant manager of Ireland respectively last November, “is that we have given ourselves the best opportunity: we have two iconic Irish men. One a North man. One a South man. Both captains of their countries. I don’t think that the association could be faulted in any way that we didn’t go and aim high. I think they will work out.”
“You know, if Martin wants Roy,” says Eamon Dunphy, “John will spend the money required to get two legendary Irish people to manage the team. And that was just recently when soccer was at a low ebb. And since then, Keane has been the X Factor - if you like a bit of charisma. Martin has got the experience. And the CV. Martin has done terrific things in the game.”
“So the football on the pitch is likely to be good. And we’re likely to qualify for the European Championships 2016 and maybe the World Cup 2018. So John has overseen all of that,” Eamon says.
Asked what was his first reaction when he heard the idea about Martin and Roy, Denis O’Brien says: “The first question was - why is Martin going to do that? It was kind of a surprise that he would go left-field and bring Roy in as the assistant manager. And then, when you really think it through, it makes an awful lot of sense because Roy, obviously, was one of the greatest players of all time. He is much loved in half the country and in other parts of the country people are still saying, ‘Well, what about Saipan’” Denis says (referring to the notorious public spat in May 2002 between Ireland captain Roy and manager Mick McCarthy as the team were preparing for its games in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, culminating with Roy flying home in an epic strop.)
“But as a football person you couldn’t find anybody better than Roy Keane,” Denis says.
“He is pure box office,” he adds. “So having both Martin who is a terrific manager, having a lot of success with Celtic and a lot of clubs, going back to Leicester City, you’d have to say that is a pretty good combination. I think Martin’s idea of bringing Roy into the fold was inspired in many ways.”
Inspired, certainly, because the nation’s recession-darkened mood seemed to lift almost magically with the arrival of Martin ‘n Roy. “I notice, even now, when you walk down the street in Ireland, that there’s a positive vibe. That’s got to be good for the country. People are excited about Martin and Roy.”
“There is a also new enthusiasm there, too,” John adds, referring to the team. “When Trap first came in, there was a huge enthusiasm too. The players wanted to play for this legend Trapattoni. And I can see even a greater enthusiasm now because the players now want to play for these two great Irish icons, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.”
Watch part 3 tomorrow on Independent.ie