Wayne O'Connor: 'The mystery of John Delaney's sheikh - who arrived with great fanfare and disappeared without trace'
Sheikh Samir Mirdad - or 'yer man from Dubai' as he is known in Annagassan - was once appointed as a strategist at the FAI but remains relatively unknown in Irish football circles.
We crossed paths about three years ago. He came across as an enthusiastic and zealous character. We spoke for about half an hour. He asked about my career to date and promised that if I considered a move to the Gulf he would be able to help me find work.
"Life is not just about making money," he insisted. "It is about helping people get to where they want to go to."
I was more interested in his role at the FAI but, initially, he was reluctant to talk about it. Two years earlier the sheikh cut an unusual figure at a bash for the Irish 'football family'. At the time it was in vogue for football teams to be associated with rich sheikhs. Manchester City had one. French side PSG had another. FIFA had a number of sheikhs around as the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar, a tiny gulf state bordering Saudi Arabia near the United Arab Emirates. Even Barcelona had ties to Qatar.
It was only a matter of time, surely, before the Irish jumped on the bandwagon.
The Sheikh cut an unfamiliar figure at the bash as he mingled with FAI staff and rubbed shoulders the likes of John Giles, Eamon Dunphy, Ronnie Whelan and the rest of Ireland's footballing royalty.
No one knew who he was until then FAI chief executive John Delaney took great pride in introducing him to the 'football family' in September 2014.
That night, Delaney said the sheikh would play an important role in the organisation's future. Two weeks later, the FAI appointed Sheikh Mirdad as an international business strategist with a focus on the USA and Middle East. A press release was issued heralding the appointment as a huge coup for the FAI.
"We are very grateful to Sheikh Samir Mirdad for his assistance in generating new business opportunities for our sport," said Delaney at the time. "He is highly respected internationally and his work to develop Irish football will be of immense help to everyone at the association."
He was credited by the FAI as being "chairman of the Linx group of companies which have been involved in various multi-billion-euro investment projects and is an adviser to many senior royal family members in the Gulf as well as high net worth individuals globally."
On Linx Investments' website, Samir Mirdad is listed as chief executive. The firm brags of advising on projects worth more than $20bn and helping governments and large institutions. The sheikh is no stranger to Ireland. Although based in Dubai, he has referred to Louth as home.
"The biggest thing I've found about Annagassan is how friendly the people are. I love it here," he once said of his Irish base. He was well known among the locals. He is an accomplished horseman and became the first rider from the Gulf to compete at the RDS horse show.
Shortly after he was given the FAI's advisory role in 2014, Sheikh Mirdad attended Dundalk's Airtricity League decider against Cork City at Oriel Park.
"I flew in especially from Dubai," he said three years ago of the night Stephen Kenny's side clinched the first of three consecutive league crowns. "I have a residence not far away from Dundalk, I have a house there. They asked me if I would attend the game."
Since then the sheikh, by his own admission, has contributed very little to promoting the FAI's cause in foreign lands.
"I am not actually working for them," he said. "No, I was not working with John Delaney. The definition of work is when someone pays you to do a job. I was not paid because I didn't want to get paid. I was happy to give help because it is Ireland and I am happy to help any way I can.
"I have an association with Ireland, my father was educated there [in the Royal College of Surgeons] and I am happy to help people in Ireland. I was not an employee at the FAI."
So why was there a statement issued by the FAI appointing the sheikh as their new business strategist?
And why did Delaney introduce him as someone who would be an asset to the association?
"What I was doing was they told me they wanted to come to the Middle East to play some games and [the FAI] asked 'how would we organise that?' Where would they play the games? Who would they talk to? Who would be the football clubs to do that with? And if they could get extra sponsorship from local companies and how would they do that? That was my role."
He said the FAI's idea was that he could act as an intermediary in the gulf and help the organisation turn an untapped market into a cash cow.
"It was more of a publicity thing because there is quite a significant Irish population in the Gulf. They were considering it as a publicity thing to come in and play a club in Dubai or Saudi and see how would that go down.
"It was not an international game they were looking for but more of a game with a local team to get closer to the Irish here and increase awareness of the Irish population here."
Prior to his involvement with the FAI, the sheikh had very little involvement in football. He was involved with a consortium which failed in a bid to buy Leeds United in 2007. His only other link to the game is that Linx Investments lists former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson as one of its advisers.
"Sven is a personal friend of mine for many, many years," the sheikh said. "He is an adviser to me. He is a very good man but it is not really his football experience that was the reason we looked at him. We know him very well and he has extensive experience outside of football in investments."
The 50-year-old sheikh is known as an adviser to many senior royal family members in the Gulf and many well-connected, extremely wealthy individuals. He said he could not divulge the names of those he works for in order to protect them and their interests. However, he conceded that football is not his area of expertise or something his clients dabble with.
"The royals are not really invested in football, they are interested in doing things for their country," he said. "Football is a different kettle of fish when you're involved in it. You need to have the right expertise and we didn't really have the expertise."
The sheikh's interest in Irish football seemed limited. When quizzed about Ireland fixtures or results he knew nothing of them. I asked had he worked on organising a spate of Irish fixtures against Oman in recent years, considering his ties to the Gulf.
"No, no," he said, "the games we were talking about, they [the FAI] were planning on playing a local football club. It was not a nation against a nation."
The FAI last week declined to comment about the sheikh's involvement and role at the association.
By the end of my chat with him, he had offered to help me attend motorbike races in the UK, and set me up with jobs in journalism or public relations in the Middle East.
I was left with the impression that if Delaney knocked on his door, the sheikh would be glad to help the FAI. After all, he was willing to help me.
I have called him since and sent him text messages in recent weeks to see if he is still involved with the FAI. Maybe he had congratulated Delaney on his new appointment as executive vice-president?
The sheikh's phone still rings, my text messages still send but I have had no reply.
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