Sunday 26 May 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Delaney's week-long loan battle proves a bridge too far for former chief'


Football Association of Ireland CEO John Delaney. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Football Association of Ireland CEO John Delaney. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

It was a bridging loan that had become a bridge over troubled water, a bridge of sighs - in the end, a bridge too far. Seven days ago, the €100,000 that John Delaney had transferred to the FAI in April 2017 floated to the surface, like a body fished from the river in a cop movie. The money was repaid to the CEO in June of the same year. No-one could yet connect the dots, but everyone knew that Delaney had wanted this story buried.

Last Saturday he went to the High Court looking for an injunction against The Sunday Times. The judge refused the application. "I am satisfied," ruled Anthony Barr, "that the finances of the FAI and any payment and repayment to its chief executive are matters of significant public interest."

At some stage in the last 24 or 48 hours, this mysterious payment became the fuel that burned Delaney's bridges for good. After 14 years of controversy, farce and conspicuous remuneration, his reign as CEO of the Football Association of Ireland ended.

The Irish public will not shed too many tears. The more they saw of him, the less they liked him, not least because the more he saw of himself in the limelight, the more he liked what he saw. The gulf between what he saw in the mirror, and what the people saw, became a chasm. Delaney became a divisive figure over the last decade and more. But the more the opposition accumulated nationally, the deeper he dug his heels into the job. Seemingly incapable of being embarrassed by his missteps, or by his hefty salary, he appeared to be immovable, his power shored up by an acquiescent board of management.

It seemed that last week's revelations would merely be added to his bulging portfolio of controversies; the CEO would ride it out and eventually everyone would move on again. Once again he rolled out the familiar playbook for these situations: the threat of legal action followed by a blizzard of press statements which would spin the narrative in his direction.

In the High Court, Delaney's legal team argued that the documents seen by the newspaper could only have come from a family law case involving his estranged wife. When this didn't work, the first press release arrived later that night. And they would keep coming, thick and fast, for the rest of the week.

The €100,000 payment, he said, was a "short-term loan required to aid cash flow on that occasion". He also revealed in this first statement that his "UEFA remuneration for 2018 has been donated back to the FAI on a voluntary basis". As a member of UEFA's executive committee, he'd received a €160,000 salary in 2017. And now he was voluntarily handing over his entire 2018 wedge? He did not reveal when, or indeed why, he decided upon this gesture. But it did little to stem the tide of opprobrium that had broken.

So on Sunday evening he went back to the drawing board. "I acted in the best interests of the Association at a time when immediate funding was needed," he said in a new statement. "This loan had no impact on the full financial position or performance of the Association for the year . . . I acted in good faith for the benefit of the FAI and will continue to do so."

By now reaching for the belt as well as the braces, he added several paragraphs outlining the various reforms that had been implemented in recent years to FAI "executive governance and senior management structures". A further review of said structures was continuing; a press conference would be held in early April to provide an update on these developments. He was scrambling for traction.

Last Tuesday however, Sport Ireland, which gave the FAI €2.7m in 2017, went public with its misgivings. It was seeking "urgent clarification" because it "was not notified at any stage in 2017 about any apparent material deterioration in the FAI's financial position, as per Sport Ireland's terms and conditions of grant approval". So, just when they thought they could take a break from the fire-fighting, the FAI found themselves once again issuing a statement, this time to say they were currently drafting a reply to John Treacy of Sport Ireland.

On Wednesday evening they released another statement confirming that they had answered "all queries" raised in the letter from Mr Treacy. They revealed they had also written to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement "offering clarification", and that they would be willing to meet Shane Ross, the minister for sport, "to discuss these matters further".

But never mind Mr Ross; the Taoiseach himself was now involved. "It does seem a bit unusual," said Leo Varadkar, "that a body of that size, given its operations and the funding it receives . . . I would have thought it would have banking facilities that would have provided for a loan."

All along, an FAI delegation had been due to appear on April 10 before the Oireachtas committee on sport. But, on what transpired to be a busy Wednesday in the Association's offices, they re-issued an invitation to members of the same committee to attend the UEFA under-17 Championship draw at the Aviva stadium, complete with drinks reception, on April 4.

One member of the committee, Noel Rock TD, said it would be "completely inappropriate" for any of them to attend. He added that it was "ill-judged" of the FAI to extend this invitation "some days before we are due to scrutinise (them)."

And so on Thursday the FAI once again felt obliged to issue yet another statement, this time revealing it had now written to the Oireachtas committee offering to bring forward the scheduled meeting to April 3. It added that Mr Delaney would "lead" the FAI delegation to this meeting.

This would appear to be unlikely now.

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