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Sarah Keane the clear front-runner after Gary Owens surprisingly stands aside at Abbotstown

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Sarah Keane, the CEO of Swim Ireland, is in the frame to take on a similar role with the FAI. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Sarah Keane, the CEO of Swim Ireland, is in the frame to take on a similar role with the FAI. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Sarah Keane, the CEO of Swim Ireland, is in the frame to take on a similar role with the FAI. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

FAI board members say they were "surprised" at the announcement yesterday by interim CEO Gary Owens that he was not in the race to take the €207,950-a-year post on a permanent basis.

And with Owens out of contention for the position, Swim Ireland official Sarah Keane is now seen as the front-runner for the post, though at least one foreign-based applicant is likely to make the shortlist when that is whittled down over the weekend ahead of a second round of interviews next week.

Owens was appointed as interim CEO of the FAI in January, succeeding Paul Cooke who had been filling in that position, with the title of executive lead, and it was expected, within FAI HQ and other circles, that Owens would be a contender for the job on a permanent basis.

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His intention to stand back from the race was not discussed at Tuesday's board meeting, directors assuming he would be one of the applicants and a favourite to get the post.

Applications for the job, with the process overseen on the FAI's behalf by recruitment consultants Odgers Berndtson, had closed on July 6.

Interviews were held on Wednesday, eight applicants making it to the interview stage, with a shortlist of four to be interviewed next week. The FAI board hope to name their new CEO by the end of this month.

FAI independent chairman Roy Barrett and president Gerry McAnaney did not sit in on the first round of interviews but will interview the shortlist next week.

It was thought that Owens was at least on the eight-strong longlist. But yesterday, not long after the 45-strong FAI party of players and staff had arrived back from the Nations League game in Bulgaria, an FAI statement confirmed that Owens was not going forward for the post and would return to a position in the financial world, a move which caught directors by surprise.

"I was shocked, no one saw that coming," said one source close to the board.

"On Wednesday, I informed our independent chairman Roy Barrett that I will not be seeking appointment to the role of permanent chief executive of the FAI," Owens said in a letter to FAI staff, released by the association's communications department.

"I have confirmed to the Board that I am happy to provide interim leadership support during any transition period up to the appointment of a permanent CEO and I look forward to seeing the Association continue to develop in line with the strategy. I am now looking forward to reverting to my original plans in the business world."

Keane, CEO of Swim Ireland since 2004, is seen as the front-runner but former English FA official Adrian Bevington is also a strong contender.

Owens entered choppy waters when he was confirmed as the Interim CEO in January, the sixth person to take up that position in less than a year. Just weeks earlier, the FAI had issued a revised set of accounts which showed debts of €55 million, and in his first two weeks in the post Owens was part of an FAI delegation which agreed a bailout package with the Government and Bank of Ireland, with UEFA on board as a guarantor for that deal.

The arrival of Covid-19 caused chaos to the Association, with the postponement of all football, the Euro 2020 play-offs due to be played in March and the Euro 2020 finals, with Ireland one of the joint hosts.

The FAI also knew that main sponsors 'Three' would not renew their deal.

Owens was also tasked with overseeing the handover of power with the Irish senior men's team from Mick McCarthy to Stephen Kenny, three months ahead of schedule, and he also had to deal with a long-running battle to get the League of Ireland season up and running again, with games played behind closed doors but shown to fans via a successful streaming service.

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