Thursday 22 August 2019

John Greene: 'Lack of real change proves the FAI just don't get it'

FAI Director John Earley. Photo: Sportsfile
FAI Director John Earley. Photo: Sportsfile

John Greene

John Earley, albeit unwittingly, last week betrayed part of the mindset which now has the FAI in such a state of chaos. He showed an alarming lack of understanding of the severity of the situation facing the Association, and of his own role in it, when he accused Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross of "living in cloud cuckoo land" and, even more so, when he spoke of "the sector I represent".

I don't know John Earley, and I don't know much about him. I don't doubt that he has dedicated a long number of years as a volunteer to promoting and developing football in this country. He comes from the schoolboy wing of the football family - a pretty significant wing it has to be said - and was a member of the FAI board from 2015 until his resignation in June. This resignation, it seems, was largely sparked by the failure of the proposals put forward by Sport Ireland's governance review to originally guarantee a seat for that sector of the game on the new-look board.

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Earley's absence from the board, however, was short-lived as he was returned at last weekend's agm in Trim. He was one of two former board members to be retained by the membership, the other being president Donal Conway. If Noel Fitzroy, the outgoing vice president, could have made it three he too would have stayed on. Fitzroy admitted that having to step down "was devastating to me personally". Conway suggested that the former vice president may be a candidate for the new, and influential, football management committee due to be set up.

A few days ago, Earley spoke out about the hardship his "sector" is experiencing since the minister cut public funding to the FAI once the scale of the corporate governance issues in the Association became clear. Given the growing concerns over the state of the FAI's finances, question marks over recent accounts and the fact that last year's accounts were not ready in time for the agm, it was surely inevitable that public money would be withheld.

"The sector I represent is not responsible for the situation the FAI finds itself in," said Earley. "Minister Ross is living in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks the breakdown in the FAI was caused by the schoolboys' sector."

He added: "The grants' suspension is penalising us. Leagues and clubs badly need state aid because we could never survive alone on what the FAI give us. We've had to secure sponsorship deals ourselves, independent of the FAI, to run our national competitions."

But Earley is an FAI board member and his duties are clearly defined. There is a legal obligation on directors of companies to act in the best interests of the company. Board members are entrusted with the care of the company on whose board they serve.

In other words, Earley may justifiably feel a strong allegiance to schoolboy football, but he cannot just act as an advocate for that sector. His priority now must be as a board member, and the responsibilities it involves, but his comments last week suggest he is struggling to reconcile the two roles.

At any rate, one of the chief conditions for a restoration of public funding was for the entire board to step down to allow for fresh blood to come in and take the FAI forward out of its current mess. The minister was unequivocal on this and received assurances, it seems, that this would indeed happen. Earley and Conway, though, were prepared to jeopardise this by staying on. Earley's defence was that he was chosen by his "sector" but in returning to the board under those circumstances, his tears over the hardship being faced are surely a little hollow.

Earley also mentioned a sum of €100,000 the SFAI receives each year from the FAI which has yet to be paid. Surely, though, this is a matter between the SFAI and the FAI as 75 per cent of this year's €2.9m - almost €2.2m - from the public purse had been paid over before funding was suspended. Schoolboy football's beef here, then, is not with Shane Ross.

In retaining two directors in the face of strong political opposition, the FAI insisted it was following a recommendation from the governance review that two of the existing board members remain on the interim 12-person board to help with the transition.

This was nothing more than a cloak of convenience for the FAI. This review remains the only report into the problems at the FAI to be concluded and the rush to proceed with an egm and an agm, with no accounts and with a dark cloud still hanging over it, smacked of undue haste.

It was also highly selective - given that the review also urged the Association to begin the process of increasing female representation on the board so that over time at least one third of its members would be women. Last week, the FAI selected eight board members and all of them were men. The remaining four will be independent directors, so they don't appear to have had any problem passing the buck on that one.

Niamh O'Donoghue, who sat on the governance review group, marked her departure from the board by posting a resignation letter on social media.

O'Donoghue became a member of the board in 2017. She says that the revelations last March had come as "a considerable shock". Prior to this, however, she admits to having concerns around "the conduct of board meetings and the decision-making processes within the association" but doesn't outline any specific action she may have taken.

In the wake of the revelations, she adds, that "it became increasingly obvious to me that the controls within the organisation and the manner in which the board had operated were not close to the standards that would be expected in a company of the scale and complexity of the FAI. It gave me no pleasure to realise that the difficulties being experienced would call into question the role of the board, as I had predicted at our meetings at the end of March."

Here, too, was an insight into the thinking which permeated the board of the FAI for so long. Conway, Fitzroy, Earley, O'Donoghue and the other board members did not appear to know what was happening. There was a loan for €100,000 from their former chief executive they didn't know about; there was a bonus payment of €2m to him agreed that they didn't know about; there was certain expenditure around credit cards they didn't know about; there were press releases issued on their behalf that they didn't know about . . .

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on their part but it is clear that the previous board was ineffective, and failed in its duty of care to the Association - and by extension, football in Ireland lost out.

Here's the problem with the FAI: they just don't get it. They are blue in the face telling us they get it but the truth is they really don't appear to get it at all. Desite all the noise in and around last weekend's agm, and in the days since, there is little evidence pointing to an organisation hurtling headlong into revolutionary change.

Shane Ross is not the one living in cloud cuckoo land.

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