Sunday 26 January 2020

Comment: Lack of enforcement in licensing system damages Irish game far beyond just Bray and Limerick

A general view of Carlisle Grounds, home of Bray Wanderers. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
A general view of Carlisle Grounds, home of Bray Wanderers. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

John Fallon

When the start of a conversation on the latest League of Ireland crisis kicks off with being described as "probably disappointing", it does really set the alarm bells ringing.

Players at Bray Wanderers had gone seven weeks without pay when the Football Association of Ireland, the custodians of the game, last Friday appeared above the parapet to offer a public opinion on the matter.

This wasn't an open dialogue with media on the pertinent issues around the process which granted the Seagulls a licence to participate in the 2018 season just eight months on from wages issues and the club's hierarchy questioning their own viability.

Instead, here was an in-house video interview intended to clarify matters around the malaise that also affected Limerick FC. It meant 20 per cent of the clubs in Ireland's top-flight professional league are seemingly unable to meet their salary commitments.

Into full focus on the video came Fran Gavin, the League of Ireland director, being questioned by an FAI employee on the topics at hand.

Still, this was no interview, rather a robust defence on how licensing was in no way responsible for the laughing stock that the league has become.

League of Ireland director Fran Gavin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
League of Ireland director Fran Gavin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

When the point of commencement centres on non-payments that were, to quote, "probably disappointing", then it was difficult for this exercise in spin to be taken seriously.

Besides, just 60 seconds into the six-minute dialogue and the most pressing subject drifted from the conversation into a broader prospectus on what licensing has achieved.

Facilities, coaching and the new national underage leagues had all been brought about by this new era, all who still wanted to listen were informed.

The licensing process (a phrase painfully used throughout this saga) is undertaken by volunteers; their work completed well before the season kicks off in February of each year.

According to Gavin, they are no longer involved after that juncture and the FAI's diligent staff take up the mantle of governing all that's declared and promised.

This standalone group are then, by design, deployed for oversight purposes, providing an objective set of eyes and ears for procedures that eventually permit companies to operate a professional set-up within the most highly participated sport in the country.

It sounds very much along the lines of the Policing Authority, an outside body empowered by the Government to ensure checks and balances throughout the Gardaí.

That only difference, and a rather large one at that, is that this collection of personnel in football is faceless and anonymous.

Things weren't always so secretive. In 2006, just after John Delaney took power as the FAI's chief executive, the Independent Assessment Group (IAG) was formed and the names of these experts invited to apply new criteria for judging the fitness of purpose of clubs were publicised.

Midstream there was even an announcement confirming the departure from the committee of Niall Quinn to take up residency as caretaker manager with Sunderland. He was replaced by the late Richard Collins; and the group's title changed from IAG to licensing committee.

A request for details of identities and specific backgrounds of those issuing clubs with licences for the current year was met with the following response by the FAI in February.

"There are 10 people on the Independent Club Licensing Committee. We won't be releasing their names, but they come from legal, financial, infrastructure, and footballing backgrounds."

That's that then, until a slip occurs, magnifying the vetting measures.

It's all good and well confirming clubs' grounds have adequate toilet facilities and coaches are trained through UEFA's badges curriculum but where's the proof that clubs can actually honour their legally binding contracts agreed with players?

"These problems occur in leagues across Europe," was Gavin's response. "You cannot guarantee that salaries will be paid at the start of the season."

Well, what a change of company policy.

Back in 2012, not long after Limerick made their name as an innovative mover in the Irish football market by supposedly ignoring an FAI decree and planning to bring Barcelona to Thomond Park for a money-raising friendly, a leaked letter from Delaney and then president Paddy McCaul questioned that very topic of financial reliability.

In the letter to licensing committee chairman Derek Dee, it was stated that the necessity for Limerick owner Pat O'Sullivan to lodge 50 per cent of his entire funding for the season was based on the following worries.

"It causes the association some difficulty as there is concern among the FAI board that, given the history of Mr O'Sullivan's relationship with the association, there is a real and continuing risk that he may follow through on his threat to withdraw support from the club mid-season," it read.

Whether or not the alleged input could be deemed interference with a committee that Gavin continuously deemed independent before, during and after his FAI video is open to interpretation.

Moreover, it does indicate that risks of bankrolling clubs are a live concern to the FAI and safeguards ought to be in place to mitigate these. John Delaney may well have had valid concerns about Limerick, as did the PFAI about Bray's cashflow crises over the past 12 months, but the absence of such a channel and/or the option of enforceability exposes the flaws within the current system.

That's why the English Football League has justifiably sought written evidence from Aston Villa, the Championship club whose finances have come under scrutiny after losing the play-off final, possess the means to complete the season.

It seems a natural component of due diligence, clearly one overlooked in the Irish instance and with damaging repercussions to Irish football far and wide beyond just Bray and Limerick. That's a certainty; not a probability.

Irish Independent

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