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Dublin: 5°C Wednesday 2 December 2020

Years of greed and mismanagement exposed and leaves Irish football looking at a lost generation

Yesterday’s FAI accounts were forecast to cause shock…the reality was worse than imagined.

HE WAS NO John the Baptist in the end. 

No, the better biblical metaphor for John Delaney is the Passion’s vinegar-soaked holy sponge.

Well, perhaps less holy than holier-than-thou. 

Yesterday we learned of how the FAI are now being crucified beneath their wretched finances and much like Pilate himself, Delaney didn’t hang around to see it happen. 

john-delaney-1862018 John Delaney, at the opening of Shamrock Rovers pitches at Roadstone in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Journalists and the public had been steeled for bad news as the FAI belatedly published their 2018 accounts along with restated and revised accounts for 2017 and 2016, but the reality was worse than most imagined. 

Let’s start with where the FAI are at the moment.

They have debts of €55 million. Their auditors aren’t willing to say they are a going concern. Their top sponsor is pulling out next year. They have no state funding. 

They have a 15-year mortgage on a stadium that we were told could be debt-free next year. The board have discussed whether it’s possible to sell their 50% stake in said stadium. 

Their auditors filed a H4 notice claiming proper books of account have not been kept. They have disclosed significant underpayment of employment taxes and VAT liabilities, and have made a voluntary disclosure of €2.712 million which Revenue have yet to accept. 

They are under investigation by the Office for the Director of Corporate Enforcement. They are negotiating a refinancing package with their bank in order to stay afloat, and are reliant on the early drawdown of funds from Uefa. 

Revised accounts showed the €2.278 million profit reported in 2016 was actually a surplus of just €66,000. The €2.75 million surplus posted for 2017? That is actually a loss of €2.9 million. And in 2018 they recorded a loss of just under €8.9 million.

As one board member wheezed at the end of a marathon two-hour press conference in an oppressively stuffy Abbottstown presentation room: “A shitshow.” 

The Executive Lead Paul Cooke has said that there will be consequences at the FAI, and job cuts are an inevitability. He didn’t specify where, but they are expected to be to at grassroots level. 

That is a sickening, devastating reality, as everyone knows just how vital grassroots are to Irish football.

Take this, for example, the opening line to an address in the 2017 FAI Annual Report. 

The heart and soul of Irish football lies in the grassroots of the game.

Or this, the opening line to an address in the 2018 report. 

At the core of Irish football is our grassroots clubs.

Those were both, of course, written by then-CEO John Delaney. How they could do with his benevolence now, but he is now absent at their hour of need. 

Yesterday’s accounts revealed that Delaney earned a severance package of €462,000 at the end of September having been paid while on gardening leave since April. 

The reason he was in such a strong position with the Association in his exit talks was because of the seven-year contract extension he signed in 2014. Under that contract, Delaney was entitled to a €1 million bonus payment along with a deferred pension payment of €2 million, and these did not appear in accounts until today. 

Incredibly, the board signed off on these payments with some board members unaware of them. Delaney negotiated his contract with a remuneration sub-committee of the board, and president Donal Conway – then a board member – yesterday said that “there were no changes to the arrangement” disclosed to the board by the subcommittee at the time.

donal-conway Donal Conway with FAI board members at yesterday's press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We were told there was no change in the salary”, said Conway. “I can’t ask about anything else if we were not told.” He clarified that he was not misled, with reference to the ongoing investigations. 

That this could be signed off on is not solely Delaney’s fault, but is an indictment of the board as a whole and an outrageous example of the shambolic lack of oversight at the FAI in recent years. It leaves a terrible cost. 

Conway, who will be replaced in January and is irreparably tainted with this wretched era having joined the board in 2005, has cut a decent and honourable figure in recent months and accepted culpability. 

“My guilt is not a sin of commission, it is a sin of omission”, he admitted, having earlier said he “took a lot of things on trust.” 

Shane Ross has made it clear he won’t countenance anyone from the old regime sticking around, which leaves the SFAI’s John Earley as the last man standing from the old board.

He joined in 2017 so wasn’t around for Delaney’s 2014 contract extension, but seems determined to see out his one-year term to next July. 

“We weren’t given the right information”, he said. “People coming with the information to us were being economical with the truth. Had we had the right information we might have voiced a stronger opinion on it.” 

Earley also said he had asked some “serious questions” during his time, but declined to share the answers he received. 

Delaney routinely defended his salary during his time as CEO, and told Sky Sports in 2013 that he had turned down a job for thrice the €360,000 he was making with the FAI. 

The accounts show that by the end of his time in charge, his true income wasn’t far off what he turned down for whatever gig that had to live with missing out on him. 

When his salary is added to the deferred pension arrangement, expenses and tax payable on benefits-in-kind, his remuneration figure in the 2018 accounts reads €994,688. 

This level of pay for a football association is absurd, but as the accounts show, its highest-profile figures were well looked after. Martin O’Neil, Roy Keane and the rest of their management team were paid €1.9 million in severance last year. 

Again, this is not just an indictment of Delaney but the utter failure of oversight at the FAI. Sport Ireland may also heed lessons from this sad shambles, as their level of oversight to this year consisted largely of making sure that state funds were used for intended purposes. The FAI, to be fair, have never been found to have misused state funds. 

Sport Ireland have already beefed up the terms and conditions of their grant aid, and all sporting bodies must now disclose the full remuneration of their CEO or equivalent. 

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But it all comes too late at the FAI. Incredibly, the accounts show that Delaney made a personal donation of €50,000 to the FAI in December 2018, the month after O’Neill and Keane had been sacked.

Unlike the thread at which the Sunday Times so effectively pulled at this year, this was not a loan but an unconditional donation. Conway understood this to be an “investment in football”, and Cooke clarified that this was part of a fundraising drive for the FAI that yielded €650,000 in donations, some of which was paid by commercial sponsors. Delaney was the only FAI employee to contribute money. 

The €462,000 settlement to Delaney is full and final; the FAI are done with him.

It is outrageous that the FAI’s ticking finances have been allowed to trundle this far, and it may not have happened had dissent not been shut down so ruthlessly. Critical journalists were often sent legal writs, while post-AGM press conferences were ended a few years ago. 

Critical questions were no longer welcomed from delegates on the floor of these meetings either, with Cooke distinguishing himself as the last delegate to ask a question at the AGM before this year’s. That question was asked in 2009. 

paul-cooke Paul Cooke. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“There is a chance of that, yeah”, he said when asked if the FAI could have avoided this dire situation had critical questions been more welcome in recent years.

So where to from here?

The KOSI report is in quarantine, per Conway, and the Mazars review is ongoing. There is no thought being given to a name-change or rebrand, a la the artist formerly known as the OCI. 

The appointment of four independent directors to the board is the necessary next step, which had been held up by the logjam of KOSI and the accounts. Now that at least the latter is published, it’s hoped the directors will be on board by the reconvened AGM on 29 December. 

With the Mazars review and the ODCE investigation ongoing, there is a possibility of further seismic shock down the line. Cooke hopes not, and said yesterday marked “rock-bottom.” 

Declaring rock bottom is a curious kind of optimism, but things may yet get worse from here. God knows what the ongoing report and investigation will throw up, and the 2019 accounts will feature a spiralling legal bill.

Irish football has for decades held out heroically in the face of governance incompetence, and now its resilience is going to be tested like never before. 

When the full price is ultimately paid for the last decade of greed, excess, complacency and ignorance, those who suffer the most will be those who deserve it the least. 

So in the years to come, when you’re wondering why more kids are playing Gaelic football and more sponsors are tethered to the rugby team; why our players aren’t making an impact in England and why the potential of the League of Ireland remains untapped; why the women’s team have missed the chance to grow in a rapidly expanding sport and why  the men’s team are now losing on these trips to Georgia and failing to qualify for what will surely be by then a 48-team European Championships: open the 2018 FAI Accounts. 

The FAI board sitting before us yesterday included a (Dick) Shakespeare, and it brought to mind the line from King Lear, that “the lowest and most dejected thing in fortune has no fear.” 

Irish football is lowly and dejected…but has much yet to fear. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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