Sunday 16 June 2019

Shane Ross: 'This cynical move to appoint FAI loyalist Noel Mooney is going right back to the dark ages'

Mansion House forum will begin the reforms needed to restore pride and success to Irish soccer, writes Shane Ross

Appointment: Noel Mooney. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Appointment: Noel Mooney. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Shane Ross

Irish football is in turmoil. In less than a fortnight, Ireland face two important soccer games. Denmark, and even little Gibraltar, must be rubbing their hands in glee. God knows what new manager Mick McCarthy feels about the shenanigans of his employers, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).

Inquiries, reviews and audits galore are being held to investigate recent events. Government funding has been halted. Sponsors of the game are watching anxiously. Uefa has ridden to the rescue, promising funding in the face of financial stress.

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The players are saying little but must be bewildered about the fate of Irish soccer. Declan Rice, torn between playing for Ireland or England, can only be thanking his lucky stars he didn't opt for an Irish team led by the FAI.

Public trust in the body that runs Irish soccer has been shattered. The situation is as bad as that.

The Government and its agency, Sport Ireland, are caught in the middle of the chaos. We would prefer not to be involved in the antics of the FAI because we fully respect their autonomy - but we partially fund it. We have now discovered flaws in the FAI's corporate governance that would have made bigwigs in Ireland's once-discredited banking system blush.

The nation cares about soccer. We are proud of Irish footballers, their gallant performances, often winning in the face of overwhelming odds. We have seen travelling fans - proud to be Irish - behaving with dignity and good humour at matches overseas. They have been priceless ambassadors for our country. Soccer has lifted the nation.

Sadly, in recent months we have learned that the noble sporting spirit of our players, fans and volunteers has not been reflected in the upper echelons of the game. We will not interfere with the operational independence of our national football body but we must move urgently to restore public trust in its activities. We can no longer fund a body so patently reluctant to be transparent or open with the public.

We were appalled by the arrogance shown by the FAI board at the joint Oireachtas Committee on Sport. It was with great reluctance the Government decided to withhold public funding until we are reassured the FAI will comply with the highest standards of governance. We reluctantly gave the board the benefit of the doubt (and a couple of months' grace) when they promised to step down at the July EGM to make way for a new era and a completely clean slate of reforming directors.

To assist the reforms, we resolved to hold a national stakeholders' forum in Dublin's Mansion House, to be held this Friday, May 31. We knew soccer needed to give the voiceless volunteers, the loyal supporters, the League of Ireland, the staff, the women soccer players and the FAI itself an opportunity to influence reform of Irish football. I want to see these, the real heroes of Irish soccer, with seats on the FAI board along with others with necessary skills.

The days when the top dogs in the FAI dictated to the soccer lovers on the ground must be ended. They must be replaced. New rules and an ethos grown from the selfless army of volunteers must be adopted. We want Friday's forum to usher in a departure in Irish soccer, led from the grass roots, not by a small group of people who have been in charge for far too long.

For a brief moment, shell-shocked by their disastrous performance before a Joint Oireachtas Committee, it seemed the FAI had bought into this radical break with the past; that the old regime was in retreat; that the baton would be passed on to talented independent newcomers. A caretaker board would organise a seamless break with the past. We dared to hope.

Our hopes have been shattered. Last week the caretaker board decided to do more than caretake. It appointed a man called Noel Mooney to take the reins for a "temporary" six-month period. It did this in the face of the opposition of not only Sport Ireland, but also the Government.

In recent days, it has been desperately trying to spin this retrograde appointment to the media as a prudent development.

Public confidence in the FAI, already at its lowest ebb, will now hit rock bottom. The decision to install Mooney was a backwards step. The Irish people have a right to know why the top brass of the FAI chose him to take the role of general manager (chief executive by another name). Equally, they have the right to know why we objected in no uncertain terms in a tense, face-to-face meeting with the FAI.

Mooney is Irish, a former devoted employee of the FAI, now working for Uefa. There was no known selection process, no interview for his shock appointment. The FAI board sought him out for the job. They nearly all know him of old. If this cynical manoeuvre succeeds, they will feel eminently comfortable with him. He knows the FAI ropes.

Two years ago he reappeared from Uefa, back at his old stomping ground, the familiar pasture of the FAI AGM. His praise of the board was cringeworthy. "The FAI," he declared, "is one of our most progressive and well-run federations... it really is a super federation and you can be proud of yourselves, the board and all the members here." Wow.

Last week the board returned the compliment. Mooney of the old regime was anointed, an FAI loyalist to his fingertips. He is not the person needed to guide the FAI back into the affections and trust of the public. The FAI needs an independent chief executive, a troubleshooter without links to the FAI board, selected in an open, transparent process.

Mooney may have many talents, but he is one of the last people on God's earth suitable for this job. There is no going back for the FAI. Going to Noel Mooney is going back to the dark ages.

This week at the football forum in the Mansion House, we will begin the road to reform Irish soccer. It will be harder than we thought because no one had anticipated such brazen backsliding by a board which unconvincingly continues to profess its determination to exit in July.

Minister of State for Sport Brendan Griffin and I look forward to hearing the views of such sincere but seldom-heard voices of Irish soccer as Niall Quinn, Brendan Menton and Pat Fenlon. The League of Ireland will be given the respect it deserves. Volunteers, fans and small clubs - the backbone of the sport - will for the first time be given a real influence over a national passion which deserves better. We aim to help Uefa, Sport Ireland and, above all, grass-roots reformers, back on the road to international success and pride in the governance of a sport that has been hijacked.

Shane Ross is Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport

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