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John Delaney leaves the FAI in a worse state than he found it 14 years ago

The former CEO had some achievements in his time with the FAI, but they were outweighed by his failures.

John Delaney, pictured at Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifier against Georgia in March in his capacity as Executive Vice-President.
John Delaney, pictured at Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifier against Georgia in March in his capacity as Executive Vice-President.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THUS ENDS THE curious era of the Celebrity Sporting Administrator.

While John Delaney was never shy in placing on record how much he loved his job with the FAI, he often gave the impression of being frustrated at the necessary mundanity of his role, eager to enjoy the glamour and acclaim that came from international football.

Whether he was being hoisted high by Irish fans on a train platform, or throwing his tie, Mourinho-style, to travelling supporters, or being hailed in a pub by Ray Houghton, Delaney always seemed to wish to bask in the acclaim usually reserved for those who have achieved great things on the pitch.

He seemed at times frustrated at the limits of his suit – a metaphor that blurred into a literal reality when he lost his shoes at Euro 2012.

So as his exit from the FAI is confirmed, let’s judge John Delaney in a players’ terms one final time.

International players often frame their careers with Ireland as their being a custodian of a jersey, with their ultimate aim at the end of their time to be able to say that they left the jersey in a better place.

Did John Delaney leave the FAI in a better position than he found it? Nope. 

He leaves a role as Executive Vice-President that won’t even be filled anytime soon. 

John Delaney was appointed as CEO on a full-time basis in March 2005, with the implementation of the recommendations of the post-Saipan Genesis report among his key tasks. Some of them were implemented… but others weren’t.

Most significantly, a recommendation that the board include two independent non-executive directors was never acted upon.

Hence, in the same week as Delaney’s exit was confirmed, recruitment firm Amrop were preparing to interview 12 candidates to recommend to the FAI’s Nominations Committee for the four independent director roles on the newly-constituted board.

Had those independent members been appointed to what instead became a largely pliant, nodding board then the FAI may not be in the mess it finds itself today.

john-delaney John Delaney at a press briefing in 2005, at the announcement of a new FAI Finance Director. Source: INPHO

Delaney will point to the building of the Aviva Stadium as his signature achievement, but the disastrous Vantage Sale ticket scheme saddled the Association with damaging debts that once spiralled as high as €70 million.

True, Lehman Brothers collapsed days after Delaney announced the pricing structure for the premium tickets and the Irish economy melted down soon after, but this provides only a measure of mitigation.

The most expensive ticket was priced at €32,000 for 10-year access; the IRFU’s equivalent was €15,000. The Six Nations and Autumn internationals guaranteed rugby fans at least three high-profile, high-demand games in the Aviva every year, while the vagaries of international qualification offered the FAI no such assurances.

Delaney refused to admit to errors in the pricing structure for years, until finally doing so last year. In February of this year, at one of his final media engagements as CEO, he announced the next set of 10-year tickets are priced at €5,000.

In his pitch to the well-heeled fans thinking of investing, he spoke of how buyers would be “contributing to money that will go back into the game at grassroots level. And servicing the debt as well.”

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The stadium debt was always lurking during the latter half of Delaney’s tenure. As to whether the League of Ireland is in a better position than it was in 2005 can be debated, but given Delaney was in charge during an era in which European football revenues exploded – Uefa’s went from €700 million in 2005/06 to €2.7 billion in 2017/18 – improvements in the domestic game are nowhere near commensurate with that level of growth.

In that time, funds distributed to member associations by Uefa jumped from €123 million to €273 million.

The latter half of Delaney’s time as CEO also saw the virtual disappearance of Irish internationals from the elite level of the English game. Last week saw Troy Parrott become the first Irish player to play a competitive, first-team game for one of Tottenham, Liverpool, Man City, Arsenal, Man United or Chelsea since 2011, also the last year an Irish player was part of a Premier League-winning team.

The reasons for the decline of Irish players are many and unfair to park entirely at Delaney’s feet, but the Irish player pathway system was too slow to respond to the flooding of English academies with talent from around the world: it was no longer enough for Ireland to simply outsource elite development to English clubs; the competition was too intense. 

john-delaney File photo of John Delaney, from 2006. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The formation of the national U13, U15, U17 and U19 leagues are a worthy step in the right direction, and that schoolboy clubs could be brought into working alliances with League of Ireland clubs – however uneasy – spoke to Delaney’s genuine political skill.

But even his better achievements were engulfed in the shadow of Aviva debt – best practice was to complement the new leagues with U14, U16, and U18 competitions, but that was beyond the Association’s means.

While the senior team qualified for Euro 2012 and 2016 under his watch, these were at the direction of extremely well-paid managers and a more forgiving qualification system than ever before.

This isn’t to retrospectively diminish these achievements, but would the money that went to paying Giovanni Trapattoni, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have been spent better elsewhere?

Every single cent is needed now. The FAI are essentially being kept afloat by a guarantee from Uefa at the moment, and State funding has been cut off entirely for only the second time ever.

One of Delaney’s achievements was to decentralise the FAI and the Irish men’s team, taking the AGM and ‘Festival of Football’ around the country. This was of huge reputational benefit to the FAI , but those intangible achievements have been offset by the current public image of the FAI, which has become a byword for great greed, incompetence and fecklessness.

Talks between both parties intensified over a five-day period last week, and The42 understands they were concluded late on Saturday night, hence the fact a statement was released at 11.14pm.

The pay-off is understood to be €350,000, which is a big chunk of money but considerably less than the €3 million Delaney is believed to have initially asked for. Vice-President Paul Cooke, elected at July’s AGM, led the FAI’s negotiation. It was conducted by legal representatives for both sides, and Delaney did not sit face-to-face with his now-former employers during the endgame.

Some FAI board members were eager to dismiss Delaney earlier, but there was an acceptance that the bill of any future legal action, along with the association with Delaney lingering on for longer, meant settling was the pragmatic course of action.

Delaney’s time on Uefa’s Executive Committee is set to come to an end soon too. He has not been invited to recent meetings, with Uefa waiting for things to play out at the FAI.

Thus ends John Delaney’s career with the FAI – just don’t expect him to tread the traditional post-playing path into media punditry.

This article was amended at 20.00 to clarify that recruitment firm Amrop, rather than the FAI, will interview candidates to join the FAI Board as independent directors. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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