Monday 27 January 2020

John Fallon: 'As much as the FAI try to move the narrative on, the association is indelibly linked to the John Delaney era'

FAI President Donal Conway, left, and FAI lead executive Paul Cooke
FAI President Donal Conway, left, and FAI lead executive Paul Cooke
FAI lead executive Paul Cooke, right, and FAI President Donal Conway during a press conference following the FAI Annual General Meeting at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

John Fallon

Just a week after three Irish players found the net in Premier League games, football was well down the agenda at the FAI's annual general meeting.

Michael Obafemi, Conor Hourihane and Matt Doherty should all be part of a bright new future for Irish football beckoning under new senior manager Stephen Kenny later this year.

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Yet the only mention of the international team during yesterday’s proceedings at Citywest Hotel was the looming threat over the Euro 2020 play-off against Slovakia.

FIFA and UEFA have a track record for punishing federations running aground from a financial perspective.

Until a major cash injection – around €18m – is pumped into the FAI’s coffers to pay the bill, the very threat of extinction lingers.

As much as executive lead Paul Cooke tried to move the narrative on during the AGM and subsequent press briefings, the association is indelibly linked to the John Delaney era.

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The FAI board, from left, Richard Shakespeare, David Moran, Joseph O'Brien, President Donal Conway, lead executive Paul Cooke, John Finnegan, Ursula Scully, Martin Heraghty, during the FAI Annual General Meeting at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

A myriad of ongoing probes, the most serious by the state’s corporate watchdog, the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE), will ensure that remains the case for years, not just months.

"We have nearly 220,000 registered players and they’ll all play games next weekend," reasoned Cooke.

"The League of Ireland kicks off in six weeks' time and it’s probably stronger than it was ever before.

"Look how well Stephen Kenny has done with our under-21 team. We have the Euros coming to Dublin in June too.

"I’m not trying to push things under the carpet about what went on but these are all massive positives. We have to move on with a new FAI into a new era for Irish football."

If only it was that straightforward. Cooke is known for his business nous, as a former chief executive of two national newspapers but he is also steeped in football.

From representing his native Waterford at schoolboy level to playing in the Over-35 leagues, the game formed a major part of his life.

A former colleague of Delaney, he was soon marginalised for asking the hard questions at AGMs and council meetings.

A rule buried in the small-print barring clubs in arrears for fees attending the summits was cited to keep him on the outside.

Now that there’s been a change of Waterfordman in the CEO’s office at Abbotstown, Cooke would love nothing better to immerse himself in the core function of football.

Many fires are burning beneath the quest for survival, not least the ongoing divide between schoolboys clubs and League of Ireland outfits over the continuance of the Under-13 National League.

Cooke and his new fellow board members have been written to, requesting their intervention.

Even during the two-hour long AGM, representatives from Limerick and Athlone Town aired their respective grievances in a public forum.

Cooke is well aware that all politics are local.

Arising from state funding being frozen, clubs and leagues all over the country are concerned.

Gerry Sweeney of the Mayo Football League said from the floor: "We are looking at a cost of €20,000 to upgrade lights. From the near €4m paid to solicitors and auditors, we would get that job done 120 times.

"In fact, it would be enough to cater for most clubs around the country."

The direction of the League of Ireland is up for debate too, as Kieran Lucid’s ambitious All-Island proposal sits in the background.

As to when Cooke gets around to dealing with these issues is anyone's guess, even his own.

"We’re all volunteers on the board but we've met on most days over the past few months," he said.

"Finance got us into the trouble but it must be resolved before we can go back to other matters."

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