Sport Soccer

Sunday 25 August 2019

Tommy Conlon: FAI's talent pyramid in urgent need of restructuring

John Delaney has stepped aside from the role of Executive Vice-President pending an 'independent' investigation. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
John Delaney has stepped aside from the role of Executive Vice-President pending an 'independent' investigation. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Storm clouds gathering over the FAI

Grant Thornton inquiry into John Delaney's €100,000 loan to the FAI

Mazars inquiry into FAI's finances and governance. According to Sport Ireland, its terms of reference are extensive

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) has begun an investigation after auditors Deloitte filed a notice with the Companies Registration Office stating proper accounting records have not been kept by the FAI

Sport Ireland have committed to overseeing a 'forensic' audit of the FAI

Waterford FC have called for an investigation into the FAI's handling of their rejection for a Europa League licence

Aidan Horan, a director of the Institute of Public Administration, will be a central part of the four-person Governance Review Group to plan for a new structure at the FAI. They have to figure out a timeline and procedure around an EGM likely to be called ahead of the scheduled AGM in July

A grant of up to €5m towards the cost of upgrading the Aviva Stadium for Euro 2020 is under threat, along with other grants, with Minister Shane Ross stating it is unthinkable that any sporting body whose corporate governance is under a cloud could be considered for large capital grants

The FAI board has committed to resigning by July at the latest. John Delaney has stepped aside from the role of Executive Vice-President pending an 'independent' investigation

The talent pyramid in every sport finishes with the best of the best at its apex. The talent pyramid in sports administration is seldom as purely distilled. You will get bad ones as well as good ones at the top, middle and bottom. There is no immaculate meritocracy at work here.

It doesn't just apply to sport; it seems to be how we've ended up running a great deal of our human affairs. We have created the systems that make it this way. And no more than democracy itself, maybe there is no other way; maybe it is the least worst of the alternatives.

God knows we all love to give politicians a kicking, but someone has to do it. We all learn to be cynical about blokes in blazers also, but someone has to do their work too. Someone has to sit on the committees and do the boring stuff, the tedious secretarial and logistical duties that are seldom noticed or appreciated. The banality of the procedures, the commitment required in terms of time and energy, are enough to turn off a large swathe of the adult population that loves sport but has better things to be doing.

What's left is a tiny minority who will accept this workload. Statistically therefore, it means the talent pyramid in administration will always be a modest edifice. The pool of numbers supplying the players is small. But these are the ones with the stamina for the marathon meetings that go nowhere; these are the ones with the appetite for the committee game. Many people with greater ability simply do not want to do these jobs.

Those who accept these roles start out with a love for their sport; their work is important and generally undervalued. If they stick with it and prove themselves reasonably competent, one role will beget another role with more responsibility and more influence.

And somewhere along this road they find there is no turning back; they have integrated a substantial voluntary job into the jigsaw of their working lives and family commitments. They might even find themselves enjoying the influence and status that comes with being an experienced official. By now they have learned how the system works. And now there's a vacancy on a regional committee or maybe there's an executive position they like the look of; so they'll make a few phone calls and see what way the wind is blowing.

And before they know it, they find themselves immersed more in the backroom manoeuvres than what's happening in the arena. There's the gossip and the bartering and the dinners and the speeches and the free tickets. There is the fella looking for your vote; there is the ego-boost that comes with being able to say: "Leave it with me. I'll get back to you on that."

A lot of it is harmless in the grander scheme, and the smaller scheme too, because it is a pretty small-time world all round. The hoary old joke that is applied to academia can be applied to sport too: the politicking is so bitter because the stakes are so low.

But in a country as small as Ireland, this particular pyramid isn't especially difficult to navigate. Fellas who should never have made it past their local committee end up on national committees and boards, in GAA and rugby and many other sports as well as soccer.

But if the people who make it to the top are a reflection of the governance culture within their sports as a whole, then the tiers below the apex in soccer must be crushingly mediocre. A system that produced John Delaney, and tolerated Eddie Murray and Michael Cody on its board of management for so long, cannot be healthy. If these are the apples who floated to the top of the barrel, what does the rest of the barrel look like?

On the rung below the FAI board stands the National Council, comprised of some 60 members. Below that again, or maybe jostling for position on the same rung, are the four provincial associations. Three weeks ago, the head honchos of the Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster FAs released a combined statement that stood foursquare behind their embattled former CEO. It was a paean of praise to Delaney issued in the face of a storm of questions about his behaviour.

The statement was signed by Peter Doyle, General Secretary of the Leinster FA; by Gerard Delaney, Administrator/Secretary of the Munster FA; by Gerry Tully, Administrator of the Connacht FA; by Herbie Barr, Administrator/Treasurer of the Ulster FA; and by Denis Cruise, Secretary of the FAI's Junior Council.

Cruise is also a member of the FAI's National Council which, under the current constitution, is empowered to elect the new board of management after the rest of the current board joins Murray and Cody in unlamented retirement.

John O'Regan, secretary of the Kerry District League, also came out in support of Delaney in the early days of the crisis. As CEO he had done "marvellous work"; O'Regan went back a long way with John, he said, "and I knew his father Joe too". Last Tuesday he changed tack and stated Delaney should resign "for his own sake, for his peace of mind." O'Regan, like Cruise, is also a member of the National Council.

Gerry Gorman, secretary of the North East Football League, also sits on the National Council. He too rallied behind Delaney in a statement which, among other things, described the protesting fans who threw tennis balls onto the pitch during the recent Georgia match as "moronic". Gorman wears yet another hat, that of president of the Leinster FA. Last week, a Leinster FA youths squad played two games in Germany. Gorman as president was head of the touring party; he brought a guest along with him - Mr Delaney.

So, the senior officers of the four provincial FAs apparently felt that the newly-minted Executive Vice-President had done a great job during his 14 years as CEO. And three members of the National Council felt likewise.

In the FAI's official rule book, it states that the National Council "shall be responsible for monitoring the activities of the FAI and for monitoring the Board's governance of the Association. The Board shall be empowered to take such decisions as are necessary for the effective governance and control of The Association."

If this was their remit, then maybe it is time that many members of the Council decided to join the impending clear-out, if not for their "peace of mind", then ours. Can they be trusted to choose the right people for the new board, the right person for the role of CEO, when they were happy for so long with the status quo? Nothing changes until the culture changes, and getting rid of the old board, along with Delaney, will not of itself change the culture.

The FAI's administrative talent pyramid, from top to bottom, is a condemned building. It has left many of its people feeling homeless and neglected. Players and fans and lifelong servants of the game in Ireland have been following this wretched soap opera for over a month, caught between anger and despair at what has happened to their sport.

Stephen Henderson, manager of Cobh Ramblers, former goalkeeper of long standing and from a family steeped in the game for generations, is one of the many who feel betrayed. He tweeted last week: "All the time(s) we have been humiliated when looking for what we earned, laughed at. Criticized, ostracized, condescended to. Told it's our fault your club (is) in trouble, guardians of the game me Bollix. Every club that have struggled or are gone, you never stood a chance."

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