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Daniel McDonnell: 'Division and anger in the football family highlights task facing 'new' FAI'

Daniel McDonnell


Weekend of disharmony puts focus on range of issues on desk of interim bosses

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Officials from FIFA and UEFA (back left) observe the counting of votes during the presidential election at the FAI EGM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Officials from FIFA and UEFA (back left) observe the counting of votes during the presidential election at the FAI EGM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Officials from FIFA and UEFA (back left) observe the counting of votes during the presidential election at the FAI EGM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Here's a window into the divided world that the new powerbrokers in the FAI will have to negotiate.

At the FAI Council meeting in Blanchardstown on Saturday, an official involved in amateur and schoolboys football in the midlands declared his opposition to a reported focus on investing in the League of Ireland.

He said this would be like pouring money into a black hole, a statement that drew loud applause from sections of the room, particularly in the field of schoolboys football.

League of Ireland attendees were shocked by the sentiment, which highlights the opposition that exists to plans for an improved league to be at the centre of Irish football.

But this wasn't the ideal setting or time for that debate.

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Outgoing President of the FAI Donal Conway, left, presents President elect Gerry McAnaney with the Presidential Chain of Office during an FAI EGM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown in Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Outgoing President of the FAI Donal Conway, left, presents President elect Gerry McAnaney with the Presidential Chain of Office during an FAI EGM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown in Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Outgoing President of the FAI Donal Conway, left, presents President elect Gerry McAnaney with the Presidential Chain of Office during an FAI EGM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown in Dublin. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Large parts of the gathering which followed the election of Gerry McAnaney at an EGM were described by various attendees as the 'Pat O'Sullivan show' with the Limerick FC owner continuing his battles with the FAI hierarchy over their attempts to press on with the First Division season without him.

There was also time given to clubs that continue to object to the inclusion of Shamrock Rovers II in their league and the process that led to it.

Queries about the legal cost of the dispute with O'Sullivan were also aired, with the overall episode doing little to alter the perception that the league is a complete basket case.

Interim CEO Gary Owens, his high-profile deputy Niall Quinn and independent chair Roy Barrett are part of a group that originally came together with the League of Ireland in mind.

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They have yet to win over a number of people working in that area. But they may face a bigger job to convince other parts of the so-called football family that it's worth it. League reps feel that power bases that were strong under John Delaney parrot a line that the LOI is a drain on FAI resources.

Their counterpoint is that a full exploration of the books may prove the league is a net positive contributor when all fees and funds are taken into the equation.

But the constant theme here is suspicion arising from a division of power and the problem for the LOI faction is that the statements from the top about the need to fix the league are breeding resentment in places which believe their piece of the pie will be smaller as a consequence.

We know that it's not a very big pie. And that was laid bare by a series of other developments on Saturday.

A rep from Peamount United, the champions of the Women's National League, pointed out that their players were bag-packing that day in order to fund their European campaign.

Irish clubs are losing girls to England and they don't even have a mechanism to seek compensation - a key word at the heart of the schism that exists in the men's game.

Across town, League of Ireland referees were staging a walk-out at their national seminar, the flagship event of the year, where the attendance included a guest from UEFA.

This dispute stems from tensions related to working conditions that have been bubbling under the surface. Twenty-three out of 70 officials on the league panel, including Women's World Cup star Michelle O'Neill, did not complete the fitness test which is basically their NCT for the 2020 season. This has led to a crisis, with only four Premier Division refs qualified.

It has emerged that the Elite Referees Panel had to cobble together over €30k between them to pay for kit and equipment to do their work in 2019.

There was a dispute with the authorities over a commitment to make a contribution which was slow to materialise and led to a mini-protest in October.

For the officials, the chopping of the proposed itinerary for the seminar - 'our Ard Fheis' as one official put it - was the final straw after a number of finance-related cutbacks.

This includes the loss of training facilities in Munster, the failure to replace a fitness coach in Leinster, the departure of a national fitness co-ordinator, and the absence of medical services at a mid-season fitness test which did not go ahead even though it's a mandatory assessment.

Worryingly, there's a tale of another test where a panel member collapsed and was on the ground for 30 minutes. No medical equipment or water was available on site for those undergoing the fitness examinations.

Word of the match officials taking a stand drew a lukewarm response from some League of Ireland heads who feel that fees for referees, assistants and observers are too high. They are a significant expense.

There is a debate to be had there, yet the interest groups might find they have more in common than they think, especially when it comes to the subject of UEFA funding and how that is supposed to help the running of the national league. That's a job on the to-do list for the newcomers. Indeed, it's understood that a trip to UEFA HQ is on the cards for Quinn to learn more about how these streams operate.

Owens and Quinn are due to meet with staff in Abbotstown today, where the main issue remains the fear and uncertainty around their future; a concern that is unlikely to be dramatically allayed by any announcement of a deal with government, banks and UEFA.

For all that the new decision-makers have made noises that they are against the idea of job cuts, it remains possible that voluntary redundancies will be on the table as a slightly kinder alternative to enforced exits.

The inference is that Owens will take a lead on the restructuring, whereas Quinn's brief will deal with the football side of things but there's an inevitable diplomatic crossover. New committees set up under the governance review are short on bodies and the return of ex-board members has raised eyebrows.

More pertinently, the Football Management Committee, which is supposed to drive on-the-field policy, has yet to get up and running. The problem remains that candidates pitching for seats are doing so with an intention to look after their own patch.

Minister Shane Ross and Department of Sport officials (who will be around after the election) have been made aware of the dysfunction.

It's a tough area to wade into, but the government side may yet look for an increased number of independent nominees on influential committees as a condition of any imminent deal.

The possibility of a push to alter the formation of the board from four independent directors and eight representatives from football constituencies to six of each is a live one.

Broader change will take time, however. McAnaney said that a new era was around the corner on Saturday, yet there is no doubt that his campaign was aided by the fact that he was a familiar face to the old guard.

This was a recurring point in post-EGM discussions with voters who said they didn't know much about his opponent Martin Heraghty.

For some, the fact that he was the current chairman of a League of Ireland club was enough to make their mind up. That's telling.

After a decade and a half of silence at meetings of substance, McAnaney said that football people are now finding their voice. The problem is that there's a hell of a lot of shouting to do before competing forces can begin to understand each other.

That's if they ever do.

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