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Dublin: 9°C Friday 26 February 2021

Another grim day shows how Irish football has been failed by more than just the top of the FAI

The FAI was again the talking point in Leinster House, as Minister Shane Ross and Sport Ireland were in the spotlight.

Dark day: FAI headquarters in Abbotstown.
Dark day: FAI headquarters in Abbotstown.
Image: ©INPHO

AT LEAST A difficult child gets a bit of attention. 

The League of Ireland instead lately become a forgotten child, tossed away like a Dickensian urchin and left to fend for itself, only occasionally visited by some decadent, top-hatted beadle. 

But at the Oireachtas Sport Committee today, the forgotten child found its voice. 

It was Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien who butted the government against a bewilderingly disregarded reality, when he asked for confirmation that if the FAI were to go to the wall, the League of Ireland would disappear with it. 

Shane Ross’s response was shockingly casual. 

“My guess is that if the FAI goes, the League of Ireland goes the same way.

A statement issued by the Department of Sport this evening played down these concerns. 

By the time Committee proceedings returned from a 15-minute break, Ross had presumably grown more sensitive to public opinion. 

“I am particularly concerned about the League of Ireland, and I have felt they have been neglected to an extent under the old regime and there is room for improvement.”

It is a terrible shame that the Minister held these concerns so resolutely to himself prior to this crisis. He had a chance to air them in a Newstalk interview 13 months ago, for example, but instead chose to say that “fans are very enthusiastic about what the FAI are doing”. 

By that stage, O’Brien – once involved in the running of Cork City – had let rip. “We were not the problem child, the FAI were the absentee fathers. They were the absentee fathers who didn’t give an absolute bollocks about the League of Ireland.”

Deputy Gogarty can finally be peeled from the most memorable use of unparliamentary language. 

The last of these Committee meetings in April was full of revolutionary vim, with Ross declaring that the resignation letter from the board proved that this was the “end of the old FAI”, and that we were all headed for the sunlit uplands of Irish football. 

Today, Ross told us that there is a “steep mountain to climb” before the FAI’s state funding is reinstated. Eight months on, the mood was infinitely more sombre as the glacial rate of progress and the toxic half-life of the previous regime were laid bare. 

Firstly, what we know about the present state of the FAI. At a meeting with Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin on Monday, the FAI board (minus the outgoing Donal Conway) plus representatives from Grant Thornton laid out the state of play.

Their debts, when monies owed to Uefa are added in, are closer to €62 million, and they asked the government for a bailout to the tune of €18 million.

Ross said there isn’t a chance this is going to happen, given the quarantined KOSI report said the FAI are not fit to handle public funds.

This was the cornerstone of an FAI business plan that Ross declared as “not credible”.

When asked if he would share said business plan with the Committee, he said he couldn’t as it had ” the word confidential written all over it”, and then admitted he might not have been supposed to share the €18 million figure.

He and Griffin will meet with Uefa in Dublin on 14 January at a meeting to which the FAI won’t be invited. 

The government line at the moment is that if the FAI need a bailout, it will have to come from Uefa as they can’t commit any public money to them. 

Department officials have also been asked to meet with the IRFU tomorrow over concerns about the Aviva Stadium. One option for the FAI is to sell their 42.5% stake in the stadium, but to whom is unclear. 

Ross also announced a plan to fund 60 FAI development officers through a payroll system independent to the FAI. It’s a pretty noble idea, but when asked by O’Brien how he would fund the administration staff that make their jobs possible, Ross filibustered about hope for the FAI’s future and didn’t give a satisfactory answer. 

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There are, however, four glowing beacons of hope for the FAI: the proposed independent directors to the board. “We will reduce the risk of examinership and liquidation immediately once the independent directors are in,” said Ross.

“That will lead to more confidence in stakeholders, ourselves, the banks, Uefa.” 

In spite of their importance, there is a bewildering lack of clarity as to who they are and why they have yet to take their jobs. The FAI last week told the Committee in a letter that the nominated Chair is doing a “thorough analysis of issues and concerns” within the FAI, and the other three directors are going to be briefed on the situation. 

Shane Ross said the FAI’s “latest excuse” for their non-appointment is that the directors wish to see the KOSI audit of the Association, which they have yet to see.

Ross says he doesn’t believe this reason, although didn’t say what he believes the true reason may be when asked by The42 after the Committee meeting concluded. 

He won’t be sending the proposed directors the KOSI audit to help their due diligence either, given it has been sent to Gardaí and won’t be published under legal advice, lest it prejudice any possible future legal action. 

The FAI’s Nominations Committee – made of two FAI board members and three Sport Ireland appointees and charged with approving the candidates recommended by an external recruitment company – don’t know the names of the nominated directors, yet Sport Ireland CEO John Treacy told today’s meeting that he knows some of the names… but not all of them. 

Given all sides are so eager for their appointment, it’s a deeply confusing delay. Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh posited that the directors are perhaps reluctant to come on board lest they be held liable for some previous board failings. 

There have been too many public spectacles this year showing how Irish football has been let down by those at the top of the FAI; today was a day to show it isn’t being adequately served by others around it. 

Minister Griffin was asked by Catherine Murphy whether the Irish national teams would be unable to compete internationally if the national league went to the wall. The answer is yes; Minister Griffin “wasn’t 1000% sure on it”. 

Minister Ross, meanwhile, wasn’t able to respond to Jonathan O’Brien’s critique of his grassroots funding plan, and has had to publish a follow-up statement clarifying his “guess” that the League of Ireland would not necessarily disappear should the FAI go into liquidation. 

It is the understanding of the Department that if the national association failed, the national league would be impacted and would cease to exist in its current format.  However, we understand that League of Ireland clubs would be in a position to rebound quickly and fulfil fixtures if such a failure were to occur in the FAI.

The FAI is reckoning with doomsday and the sports ministers today showed they are not yet ready to confront it. Both, in fairness, deserve credit for seeking a meeting with the PFAI later this week. 

The last time the full Sport Ireland board met with the FAI, meanwhile, was in 2015. They invited the FAI twice at the end of 2018 – twice John Delaney was unavailable – and a planned meeting for this year didn’t happen as the Sunday Times’ front-page story blew Irish football apart. 

They have proved greatly flawed regulators of the FAI, primarily because they didn’t want to be. John Treacy told the Committee they are a “promotional body” for sport, rather than a regulatory body. That may be the case, but this year has shown how badly we need a robust regulatory body for sporting organisations. 

Prior to this, Sport Ireland only had the power to audit the money they provide to a sporting body; after this fiasco they’ve beefed up their powers and are now able to sanction a full audit of an organisation if they wish. 

But for the FAI, it is all too late. 

When John Treacy was asked by Noel Rock if he could say what was the genesis of this FAI crisis, the clue may have been in the question. The 2002 Genesis Report recommended the FAI appoint two independent directors to the board, but it never happened and there was no oversight body to force them to do it. 

Had that happened, we may not be stuck in this appalling trough 17 years on, relying on the appointment of four independent directors to help save the whole place from liquidation. 

On a shockingly grim day, Kevin O’Keeffe provided some light relief. Far from a staunch critic of John Delaney, he apologised for having been “caught offside”, adding he didn’t have “the use of the VARS”. 

He then pried some genuinely good information from Treacy – that the proposed independent directors have not yet read the KOSI report – but at the moment of his greatest triumph of these four FAI-related meetings of 2019… his phone rang and sent the theme tune to the Good, Bad and Ugly ringing around the room. 

Irish football could only wish for such emotional range. 

Damn these ugly, wretched days. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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