Wednesday 21 February 2018

Domestic matters give FAI cause for concern

Chris Shields (left) and Sean Hoare join in as David McMillan celebrates after after scoring Dundalk’s first goal against Shamrock Rovers in the EA Sports Cup final at Tallaght. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Chris Shields (left) and Sean Hoare join in as David McMillan celebrates after after scoring Dundalk’s first goal against Shamrock Rovers in the EA Sports Cup final at Tallaght. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

John Fallon

As Irish football grapples with the latest crisis surrounding alleged match-fixing, in a parallel universe the image of the game internationally has supposedly never been better.

John Delaney, the Football Association of Ireland's chief executive, has been mixing in European circles before and since his election to UEFA's executive committee in April and maintains that the country's reputation is glowing in the eyes of the outside world.

The domestic problems encountered by what Delaney once branded as the FAI’s “difficult child” didn’t feature in the eulogies. Photo credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
The domestic problems encountered by what Delaney once branded as the FAI’s “difficult child” didn’t feature in the eulogies. Photo credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

"It was lovely to get elected to the UEFA board, but that's more a demonstration of how well regarded Irish football is in Europe," Delaney told Radio Kerry last week in a rare interview.

"Certainly, as I travel around Europe the regard for how the game has developed here is very strong. They look upon us as a population of four to five million people and all the progress we've made at international level, but in particular grassroots level. That came across."

Presumably, in the absence of him declining to address national media queries at a function last week, the domestic problems encountered by what Delaney once branded as the FAI's "difficult child" didn't feature in the eulogies.

Blazer

Nor were his colleagues in the blazer brigade raising the €5m settlement he brokered from FIFA in the aftermath of the Thierry Henry handball episode.

They are hardly the type to assert, as former Ballon d'Or winner Ruud Gullit bluntly did, that the FAI were "bought off".

Not that the issues are confined to a League of Ireland sector now dealing with a second betting scandal in four months.

However, it is where the most comical stories emerge from, continuing to attract ridicule on a sector in radical need of an upturn.

That detectives from the National Economic Crime Bureau giggled at a Whatsapp group entitled North Korea when scanning the phones of Bray players last Tuesday in this latest investigation said much for the Airtricity League's profile.

The gradual lowering of wage levels in the League, influenced by the FAI slashing prize money amid their own cash-flow problems, can undoubtedly tempt players into making a quick buck.

One player, Longford Town's Colm James, was suspended for 18 months in 2013 for breaches of rules concerning match integrity.

Two more players, both of Athlone Town, were recently slapped with 12-month bans also connected with betting, though the PFAI are appealing those decisions.

Whether the Bray case, triggered by alleged betting patterns around a 5-0 defeat to Waterford in a friendly 10 days ago, leads to any action is unclear, but clearly the League of Ireland is a sitting duck.

According to the players' union at least, a large portion of the current player population receives less than the legal minimum wage when their salaries are measured against hours expended for training, travel and matches.

If their tidings are to be believed, the governing body's financial position is rapidly improving, yet this hasn't translated into a jolt for the long-suffering League of Ireland prize pot.

"You're on about prize-money again," snapped Delaney in May, when questioned on the matter.

We certainly were on about it, as his own body had trumpeted a decade ago as part of their charm offensive to seal a merger deal with league clubs.

Much has been promised since the multi-million bonanza was slashed by 80pc, with only crumbs getting delivered. In 2016, a paltry increase brought the overall figure to €475,000, just over the amount earned by a club for progressing past the preliminary round in the Europa League.

Ironically, that boost directly arose from a sponsorship deal with Trackchamp. This is the company which facilitates overseas live viewing of league games.

Oh, and there was a catch. Gamblers, not viewers, are the target audience as an active betting account must be in operation.

This year's league launch came and went without any further replenishment of the funding and the bleak outlook for the international team's World Cup qualification prospects don't bode well for the 2018 season.

Projections

Of course, the FAI claim prize money derived from reaching major tournaments isn't factored into their financial projections, but loyal development officer staff awaiting white smoke on restoration of their pay cuts have been told not to expect an update until next month.

That's when, of course, the road to Russia will either by blocked or detoured by a play-off in November.

Financial health is also vital to other strands of the game.

In his dealings with Aleksander Ceferin, the new UEFA president Delaney backed to succeed his disgraced friend Michel Platini, the Slovenian is likely to compare notes on Futsal.

The indoor game is one central to UEFA's philosophy and Ceferin was instrumental in his home country hosting next year's European final.

Ireland weren't one of the 41 nations challenging to qualify as the national team were discarded after the FAI's debt pile mounted.

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