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20 years of drama in Irish football, Chapter 1: the rise and fall of John Delaney

In the first in the series, Garry Doyle speaks to figures in the game about the man who rose to become chief executive and oversaw the Association for almost a decade and a half.

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For over 20 years, Garry Doyle has covered the Irish football team across the world, interviewing key figures in the two most dramatic decades of the FAI’s history. Each day this week, The42 will retrace the sagas and the controversies, taking you inside the dressing room and the board room, starting today by examining the reign of John Delaney: FAI chief executive from 2005 to 2019.

mick-mccarthy-alongside-john-delaney Box seats: John Delaney with then Ireland boss Mick McCarthy in the stands of the Aviva Stadium. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

IT WAS THE worst of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of cost-cutting austerity; it was the age of excess.

It was the epoch of big stadium promises; it was the epoch of incredulity. There were 50 shades of grey hair in the FAI boardroom; there was the lavish 50th birthday party for the chief executive in Mount Juliet. There was the summer when Monaghan lost a League of Ireland football club, the same summer John Delaney lost his shoes in Sopot.

We had everything before us, we had nothing before us. In 2016, we paid our League of Ireland champions €110,000 in prize money; in 2016, we paid our chief executive €360,000. We were repeatedly told that 2020 would be the year when the FAI would clear its stadium debt; 2020 was the year the FAI petitioned the government for an €18m bail-out.

Rank-and-file FAI employees endured pay cuts in 2012, the FAI spent cash on Delaney’s rent for much of the last decade. The 1990s ended with Irish football winning European underage championships, 2019 ended with a different kind of title when executive vice-president entered the Irish football lexicon.

The legacy of John Delaney’s reign as FAI chief executive — between 2005 and 2019 — is everywhere to be seen in the game here. You can hear it in the voices of the football men he has hurt, see it in the FAI accounts which, at the time of the government bail-out earlier this year, showed a €62million debt. The balance sheet is grim and the team-sheet is not much better.

When he assumed power in 2005, there were players from Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea in the Irish senior team. Now it is Stoke City and Sheffield United, Burnley and Fleetwood Town. The stadium he boasted proudly about still stands but so does the debt the FAI owes on it. Most of all, though, what’s left is his story.

Over the past week, The42 has spoken to former international managers who lost their jobs under John Delaney’s watch, two of his predecessors in the FAI, the journalist whose stories brought him down, the union official who took him on, the politician who chaired Delaney’s extraordinarily brazen performance in the Oireachtas.

Across those conversations, their disdain for the Delaney regime is evident. “He was a terrible chief executive,” Eoin Hand, the former Ireland manager who worked as the FAI’s manager of football services up until 2012, opined to The42 last week.

“This was not even a period of standing still. Irish football went backwards. It was probably one of the worst jobs anyone has ever done in terms of developing sport. I’m just glad there are good people running (the FAI) now. Under Delaney, the younger generation was the loser, Irish football was the loser.”

Yet in September 2008, when Delaney stood on the first floor of the Watermarque building near Dublin’s Grand Canal dock, something radically different was being promised. Irish football, we were told, was winning. A pledge was made, Delaney delivering it. The game was on the verge of getting its very own ‘pension and toll’.

**

The room at the Watermarque on that sunny afternoon was packed with some of football’s greatest names: Giovanni Trapattoni, Marco Tardelli, Best, Gerry Ryan – except the Best in question wasn’t Georgie but his first wife, Angela; while the Gerry Ryan working the room wasn’t the former Ireland midfielder who won 18 caps for his country, but the popular DJ from 2FM.

fai-vantage-club-launch ISG CEO, Andrew Hampel with Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, FAI chief John Delaney and Ireland assistant boss Marco Tardelli . Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“This is a magnificent opportunity for Irish football,” Ryan, in his role as MC, said to a gathering of business people who were flicking through the glossiest of brochures, eyes dropping at these costliest of prices. The cheapest corporate seat for the rebuilt Aviva Stadium was coming in at €12,000, the dearest at €32,000. This was the month Lehman Brothers collapsed, prompting the worldwide financial crisis. It didn’t take a fortune teller to figure out that Delaney’s grand plan had the potential to go tits-up and sure enough a huddle of hacks questioned whether this scheme would work.

“The thing is,” Delaney told the assembled journalists, “we have 33,000 millionaires in this country and there is a database of 88,000 people we are chasing. We only need 3,000 sales because, on average, our research says that each buyer will purchase three to four seats. It makes us easily afford our capital commitment to the project. Our aspiration is to sell out and I think we will have most sold before we open the new stadium.”

If only. Six months after the original launch, there was a second one, ‘the football family’ targeted on this occasion, incentive deals pitched at a working class audience. This time Delaney predicted the FAI would ‘hit 6,000 sales by the end of the summer’. “I hope at long last that this kills this myth about whether we have the funding (for their share of the Aviva Stadium rebuild),” he said in March 2009. “It’s clear to me we’re going to do very well.”

It wasn’t so clear to everyone else, however, and by 2010 the issue of unsold seats re- emerged at that year’s FAI AGM. Again, Delaney’s words had changed. “Most people who build stadiums incur debt,” Delaney said at that meeting. “We’re building ourselves into strong annualised payments which are good and we’ll be able to service our debt.”

Those three words, ‘servicing a debt’, struck a chord with Bernard O’Byrne. Once upon a time, he too was chief executive in the FAI, hoping to deliver his own stadium for Irish football. Eircom Park, however, didn’t have unanimous backing among the FAI board, Delaney being a particularly vocal opponent of the scheme.

bernard-obyrne Former FAI boss Bernard O'Byrne. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Way back then, the most striking thing about Delaney wasn’t just his hairstyle but his championing of two causes: openness and transparency. As Waterford’s representative on the board, he regularly quizzed O’Byrne about corporate seat sales for the doomed eircom Park project. “The debt is £55-56 million (Irish punts) – that is the type of borrowing including the land we would have to service. In my view, it’s not a runner now,” Delaney said in January 2001.

Two months later, he was telling League of Ireland clubs to forget about eircom Park and throw the chips in with the Government’s proposal to build a National Stadium at Abbotstown. “The subsequent argument in favour of Bertie Ahern’s stadium plans proved to be nonsensical and financially unfeasible. The horse they backed didn’t even have three legs,” O’Byrne told The42 this week.  

**

If you wanted to, you could select one moment from Irish football history and picture a different world unfolding. In this universe, John Delaney doesn’t come to power inside the FAI, Bertie Ahern doesn’t seek to build the so-called BertieBowl and the government of the day puts IR£60m into eircom Park, matching the amount it gave the GAA in 2001 to assist with their Croke Park rebuild.

Dissension within the FAI board gets squashed, Delaney’s influence dips and instead of a crippling stadium debt, the Government’s grant allows the FAI to pour their profits into underage academies and the League of Ireland. 

“In a parallel universe, we could have had a fully professional league as the centrepiece of the FAI,” says Players Union secretary, Stephen McGuinness. “It isn’t an exaggeration to think that could have happened, that we could now have better stadiums, clubs with better training facilities. Not as many kids would have gone abroad; they’d have seen their future here. It annoys me what happened during the Delaney years. Administrators who were at the top of the FAI, Delaney mainly, did not do a good enough job. There could, and should, be a (much better) TV deal in place to generate a substantial income for clubs. Things should be so much better in Irish football.” 

But as we know, this fantasy world doesn’t exist. By 2001, O’Byrne was gone, and Delaney promoted to honorary treasurer, lauded by many as an agent for reform.

“Delaney was hard to read when he first emerged onto the board,” says Brendan Menton, who succeeded O’Byrne to become the FAI’s General Secretary in 2001. “He would say and do outrageous things and get away with them. At one FAI board meeting – over eircom Park – he left the meeting to do a radio interview and then came back into it. We may have appeared to be allies at one stage but that quickly changed with Saipan and the World Cup.”

brendan-menton Brendan Menton faces football reporters in 2002. Source: ©INPHO

Saipan: 2002 was dominated by that single word. If eircom Park was divisive, it failed to compare to the sporting civil war that followed a year later. Ireland split itself into two camps, Mick McCarthy’s and Roy Keane’s. The only thing everyone united on was to “oppose the FAI” according to Menton. Delaney, again, was a key figure in that year’s drama. “He kept trying to get Keane back,” Menton says. “If Roy Keane had returned a second time, Delaney would have been a hero. He was undermining the commitment I gave to Mick that the Association were backing him.”

If you want to trace John Delaney’s rise to power then this is where you start. By now, he was the one of the most influential figures in the FAI, even if he didn’t sit in its highest office. Menton held that dubious honour until 2003, followed by Fran Rooney who didn’t even last two years.

By winter 2004, government funding had been suspended but Delaney spoke to FAI council members about bringing it back. Initially put in charge on a temporary basis, he promised legislative change if he got the gig permanently while hinting strongly at managerial continuity.

After four years of rancour and in-fighting, this was precisely what FAI delegates wanted to hear. Eircom Park, Saipan, the 2002 row between St Pat’s and Shelbourne over the Marney affair, the tension during the Rooney years, the withdrawal of government support, had left its mark. And while, even at this stage, there were a number of Delaney opponents, the majority of those were either out of football or, in Menton’s case, out of the country. “John Delaney had a strong political base within junior football; even though he was from a League of Ireland background,” Menton says.

No one had a deeper knowledge of how the politics of Irish football worked. Within months his position as chief executive was made permanent. And within a year, Brian Kerr – the man Delaney claimed he had an ‘excellent relationship with’ was gone, Delaney justifying the decision by saying he was confident the FAI could deliver a world class manager. Instead they gave the job to a rookie, Steve Staunton.

steve-staunton-and-bobby-robson The gaffer: Steve Staunton and Bobby Robson at the new Ireland manager's unveiling in 2006. . Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

He’d pay the price for that. February 2007, the Stadio Olimpico di Serravalle in San Marino: Stephen Ireland scrambled an injury-time winner that night, a goal that overshadowed a seminal moment. For this was the first time a ‘Delaney Out’ banner was unfurled by Irish fans at a game. Security officials quickly seized it. But the message hit home.

“That (banner) got to him,” a prominent former board member who wished to remain anonymous told me. “I distinctly remember him saying around then how he felt he had a handle on everything, the FAI’s technical development plans, the League of Ireland, the finances, sponsorship – everything except the senior team.” 

Still, in September 2007, Delaney was backing the job Staunton was doing. “Everyone accepts we are in a transitional position and Stephen deserves the time to carry his work through,” Delaney said. “The results of the last 10 games have been good. Not many teams have as good a record as that in Europe.”

The FAI sacked Staunton a month later. 

**

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The year is 2008 and this is when everything changes in Irish football. It starts with the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni and for the next decade the FAI are focused on big-name managers and the associated price you pay to get both them and their entourage.

Yet 2008 was also the year we saw a much more significant financial outlay. To fund the FAI’s €74 million portion of the Lansdowne Road redevelopment project, John Delaney and his fellow members on the board had to think smart. A recession was on its way. “Plus football’s traditional fan base is significantly working class,” Menton says.

“You can’t ask for outrageous money and expect to get it. I remember the backlash we got when, during the period I was Honorary Treasurer, we increased prices at the old Lansdowne Road from IR£30 to IR£40. So, to charge the Vantage Club prices, that was a mixture of naivety, stupidity and arrogance. The FAI has never succeeded in having a successful long-term ticketing scheme in perhaps four attempts since the early 1990s.”

Sensible words.

However, Andrew Hampel, CEO of ISG, had a different view about pricing. “Plenty of people still want to be seen at the front of the aeroplane [and] these seats are the front of the aeroplane,” Hampel said on the launch day of the Vantage Club. But the plane never left the runway; the FAI struggled to sell, needing an astronomical bank loan instead to fund their commitment to the Aviva.

That should have finished Delaney. As chief executive, he had failed to deliver on his manifesto. Yet the board stood by him even as the financial strain was felt through almost every sector of the game. Supporters point to his achievements. Securing sponsorship from Three, worth a reported €7.5m at the height of the recession, was arguably his biggest one. The size of the FAI’s staff expanded under his watch; the national training centre was opened; their sponsorship portfolio increased. Some consider his ability to persuade Denis O’Brien and Sepp Blatter to part with their millions to be distasteful; others view it as a coup.

At grassroots level, he is respected for his work among several unheralded clubs who valued the finance, guidance and time the FAI gave to them. Cynics have viewed these actions as a way of garnering support, yet to rural clubs in particular, Delaney’s actions helped football grow in areas it never did before.

“The Genesis report ultimately worked in his favour,” Menton says. “Under the old board, rigorous questions would have been asked. But after Genesis, he was allowed to centralise power into a small group of about four people.”

And they kept surviving crisis after crisis, managerial upheaval, the Aviva Stadium debt, the scrutiny that followed Monaghan United’s departure from League of Ireland football during Euro 2012 – a time when he was videoed living it up in Poland; the furore over the €5m payment the FAI took from Fifa after the Thierry Henry handball; the distaste many people had when he was filmed singing a rebel song in a Dublin pub; the controversy caused by the women’s international players being shown “a lack of respect”. “In the past we have been getting changed in public toilets on the way to matches, it’s not a lot we are looking for, just the basics,” Áine O’Gorman, a key player, said in 2017.

In 2012, lowly-paid FAI employees who had to take 10 per cent pay cuts were also looking for something basic — the right to avoid the poverty trap. But at the same time as their wages were dropping, the FAI paid Delaney a rental perk.

The double-standards were obscene. When Hand, the man who had served Irish football as a player, manager and administrator from 1969, was told his FAI contract was not being renewed in 2012, he was deeply hurt. Hand won his case for unfair dismissal in front of the Rights Commissioner, but then was defeated in the Labour Court when the FAI appealed in 2013. To add to his pain, the FAI also cut off his four complimentary tickets for home internationals.

“I am proud of the fact there has been a lot of respect shown for me in the game,” Hand says. “Portsmouth inducted me into their hall of fame, Huddersfield Town (where Hand was manager from 1988 to 1992) welcome me back every year. The one place I didn’t get respect was from the FAI. I was Ireland manager, I played 20 times for my country; I worked myself into the ground (in his administrative role as manager of football services). A guy in the FAI, he was an executive at the time, told me I was persona non grata in there. That hurt. And it still hurts although thankfully the people in there now are different. They have impressed me and have made me feel welcome.” 

**

The postman delivered an opportunity.

It’s 1 March 2019. The first floor of the Watermarque building – ironically the exact same room where the Vantage Club was launched – is now leased to News Ireland, publishers of The Sunday Times, employers of Mark Tighe. He had spent that afternoon in the High Court, covering Denis O’Brien’s case against the Sunday Business Post. On his desk was an envelope. In it was a copy of the €100,000 cheque Delaney made to the FAI on 25 April 2017.

Poor old Denis O’Brien was relegated to second place on Tighe’s list of priorities.

Tighe immediately contacted the FAI. He got no response. The next 15 days were busy ones, though. Tighe kept chasing down the story. Several sources verified it.

It’s Saturday now, 16 March. A call comes from Hugh Hannigan, the in-house lawyer at News Ireland. ‘Get yourself down to the High Court’, Tighe is told. Delaney was suing Tighe personally for breach of privacy and was also seeking to get an injunction against The Sunday Times reporting this story. It’s 5pm. A taxi is hailed. Tighe arrives at the High Court wearing a hoodie; Delaney is already there in his suit and tie.

“Frank (Fitzgibbon, the editor of The Sunday Times) made a big call,” Tighe said. “The legal advice we received was that we had a 50/50 chance of losing it, depending on the judge. So when you bear in mind that we could have been landed with a €50,000 legal bill, you have to credit Frank for the stance he took.” Fitzgibbon’s message was brief. “Let’s take him on,” he said.

They did. The case began at 6.30pm and lasted three hours, Judge Anthony Barr noting in his ruling that Delaney had had 15 days to answer the newspaper’s queries. Instead of doing that, he had gone to the High Court. The Sunday Times were allowed to print the story.

One problem. The paper was going to bed in 30 minutes. With the deadline approaching, Tighe phoned information through to the office as the Times‘ Senior Counsel gave him and Hannigan a lift back to the office. They ran up the ramp into the Watermarque, took the stairs rather than wait for the lift, making it into the office just before 10pm to check the front page for potential mistakes. “It was like being in an old movie,” Tighe says. “We had to get it right. Just after 10, Hugh gave me permission to post the tweet. At 11.14pm, the FAI issued their own statement.”

**

john-delaney FAI officials watch Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifier in Gibraltar in March 2019. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Once again Delaney was under pressure, but once again the great escapologist looked like surviving. In Gibraltar the following Saturday, Ireland were playing their opening qualifier of Euro 2020 but the game was a sideshow compared to the boardroom drama taking place off camera. Delaney, it was rumoured, was about to resign but just when it looked like he was heading out the door, it turned out to be an adjoining room. The board had unanimously decided – according to an official FAI statement – to move Delaney into a new role, as executive vice-president.

Except this new role — dealing with Uefa and Fifa matters as well as all FAI issues relating to the Aviva Stadium — sounded similar enough to his old one, a little like U2 hiring a new frontman but asking Bono to stick around as backing vocalist.

Veteran FAI watchers were convinced he’d see the crisis out. But he wouldn’t. Tighe and his colleagues, Paul Rowan and Colin Coyle, would break more stories, week
after week. We’d read about Delaney’s expenses and that the FAI were, for a lengthy period, paying Delaney’s rent. 

**

However, John Delaney wasn’t in the mood to explain anything when he and the rest of the FAI were brought before the Oireachtas’ Sport Committee in April last year. In front of elected representatives, his deliberate strategy of avoiding specific questions relating to his €100,000 loan appeared initially to be working to perfection.

Sitting to his right, inside committee room four, Donal Conway instead became the focus of the politicians’ increasing ire. As they directed question after question at the then FAI president, interim chief executive Rea Walshe could be seen whispering prompts into Conway’s ear, a little like one of those Blackboard Jungle shows where the spotty kid with glasses doesn’t know the answers to the sports round.

As the hearing broke for lunch, a couple of reporters hung around the lobby, glancing up at Delaney on the first floor, wondering whether the afternoon would be as much of a time-burglar as the morning session. It wouldn’t. Instead, over the next hour and a quarter, five committee members got together and agreed to change tack. Rather than focus on Conway, attention would turn to Eddie Murray, the FAI’s 79- year-old treasurer, who hadn’t spoken a word in the morning session.

It was then, over the following couple of hours, when the 14-year administrative career of Delaney gradually unravelled.

No one realised it at the time. Yet as deputies Noel Rock, Catherine Murphy and Jonathan O’Brien fired questions at Murray, a sense of deep discomfort was playing out in the green room of Virgin Studios. An audience of over 100,000 people watched the proceedings on Oireachtas TV and saw footage of a 79-year-old man struggling not just to answer questions but to even hear them. “I am sorry, but I am finding it difficult to understand the deputy,” Murray said to Rock at one stage. To provide assistance, Alex O’Connell, who was just two weeks into his new role as the FAI’s finance director, was also quizzed; his nervousness apparent.

Watching from inside Virgin Studios, Niall Quinn cringed. Why was Delaney hiding behind his legal rights to leave an elderly man and inexperienced employee face this kind of scrutiny? Those moments framed Quinn’s powerful message on television that evening, words which carried through social media on to the following day’s back pages. He wasn’t the only person annoyed. Leo Varadkar, too, had his say that week, pointing out the FAI was a private organisation that they couldn’t legally interfere with.

“The Oireachtas hearing was the turning-point,” Tighe says. “The FAI’s other directors felt Eddie Murray was thrown under the bus by Delaney. He was exposed as incompetent in that role as treasurer, to be blunt about it. Eddie is genuinely a good man but people publicly saw him struggling to answer basic questions while Delaney hid behind legal advice.

“Leo Varadkar, a day later, said ‘no one can be happy with that’. The fact the Taoiseach was making disapproving noises, compared to the praise Shane Ross was giving (Delaney) as late as 2018, was critical.”

Fergus O’Dowd, chair of the committee, agrees. “His (Delaney’s) strategy backfired on him,” O’Dowd says. The end was coming. By April Delaney was placed on gardening leave and by September he was gone.

**

The people we have spoken with are asked to sum up his reign in a single word. Menton: “Horrific.” McGuinness: “Narcissistic.” Hand: “Disastrous.” Tighe’s request is for two words: “Champagne Football” – the perfectly apt title of his and Rowan’s soon-to-be-published book.

As Delaney sipped champagne and boasted about meeting the Queen, so many of his staff suffered, their pay reduced; their stories half-told and only half-remembered.

“The FAI’s famous motto is we care about Irish football,” Hand says. “But the fact is that John Delaney cared only about himself.”

* Tomorrow: Chapter 2 – Saipan, a sporting civil war

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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