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Dublin: 20 °C Tuesday 23 July, 2019

Communication shouldn't be so complicated for two organisations who share a canteen

For the game’s senior bodies to ignore the standards they expect of others is pathetic, writes John O’Sullivan.

I FUCKING HATE Shelbourne.

That’s what the #IFHS hashtag stands for.

In 2011 — while chairperson of Cork City — I retweeted a Cork City fan’s message looking forward to an upcoming match against Shels. The tweet contained the hashtag #IFHS, widely used by City fans and the basis for a chant frequently heard when we played them.

Now, even though I was completely familiar with the acronym, I didn’t show enough cop on, nor did I think much about the retweet. In fact, I thought no more about it until a letter — printed on Shelbourne Football Club headed paper — arrived at the club offices, very politely, and rightly, calling me out.

From the very first day I attended a league meeting representing Cork City, it’s worth noting that Shelbourne, and in particular Joe Casey, were among the most supportive clubs. I was embarrassed and stressed when I wrote back to Shelbourne to apologise.

I wasn’t a fan anymore and couldn’t — and shouldn’t — have gotten away with such nonsense. Volunteer chairperson or not, once you step up into the public eye, you have a responsibility that outstrips your own personal reputation. You become a face of the club.

As a fan, I enjoyed a laugh and a wind-up. I’d have a few beers before a game, join in with chants and throw silly comments towards referees and opposing players and managers.

FAI Offices at the National Sports Campus The FAI offices at the National Sports Campus. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

As chairperson, I figured out that others — especially Cork City fans — watched me differently. On one occasion I lost the plot in Athlone over a refereeing decision. I read how funny that was on our club’s unofficial forum the following day.

Twitter was in its infancy, Instagram and Snapchat on no-one’s radar, and that was great. I’m really glad social media wasn’t ubiquitous as I made my numerous mistakes while learning to be a chairperson.

Now, Shelbourne — when rightly asking me to cop on a little — could have gone about the complaint in a number of ways. They could have embarrassed me publicly e.g. on their website, match programme or social media; they could have complained to the FAI and made it a bigger issue.

Instead, they chose to contact me directly and give me the opportunity to address it, and I genuinely appreciated this. In general, clubs get along and that’s how they operate: direct contact face-to-face, or by picking up the phone. Part of that is due to a sense that we’re all in it together, part of it is enforced.

How clubs interact and communicate is under constant supervision from supporters, sponsors and, particularly, the FAI. It’s easy to make a mistake; some of them are jumped on. Positively presenting yourself, your club and the league is not just a request, it’s a requirement.

The FAI participation agreement and licensing process require that a club maintain a website, produce a match programme and release a preview of an upcoming game no later than the day before the game. The proliferation of smartphones means that supporters require clubs maintain a constant online presence. Soccer Republic requires that there are management interviews after every match.

Every word, written and spoken, is reviewed by the FAI. Have no doubt about that. If a programme, website, social media account or a manager is critical of the league or that week’s sensitive issue, you may be invited to attend a disciplinary meeting and a fine could follow.

Fran Gavin League of Ireland director Fran Gavin. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It’s within this environment that clubs, supporters and sponsors have watched the FAI and the PFAI conduct discussions on sensitive issues in public, communicating by press release and third-party interview, rather than sitting down together behind closed doors – the doors which both parties share in Abbotstown.

We had Stephen McGuinness of the PFAI criticising the lack of engagement by the FAI on the issues at Bray Wanderers. Then Fran Gavin called the input by the PFAI — an organisation he once led — as unhelpful. Equally unhelpful was John Delaney’s glossing over the issue in an interview, highlighting Gavin’s role.

The FAI trumpeted a €300,000 players fund, the National Association and the PFAI to contribute €150,000 each. Yet the PFAI knew nothing about it, nor were they made aware of the FAI’s subsequent decision to fund it entirely. The outcome might have been welcome, but the process to get there was an absolute farce.

This week on ‘Off the Ball’ on Newstalk, Stephen McGuinness stated: “And people talk where we are as an office. We are in Abbotstown. It’s not somewhere where we walk through each other’s doors. It’s a building where you walk to your car and back in. It’s not like you interact with people all the time in the building.”

That’s just not good enough. Grown men failing to address a problem and instead choosing to put their heads down as they walk through their shared exit to cars — or when passing the milk in the shared canteen — is absolutely comical.

Bray were ultimately the catalyst for the bad press but the behaviours within Abbotstown in recent weeks have not helped the situation, only serving to distract from Niall O’Driscoll’s takeover at Bray and the resultant positive surge which could have been the focus.

Stephen McGuinness PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Clubs are held to account through a licensing process and sign up to a participation agreement. The stated purpose of these is to set, maintain and raise standards within the game. People will make mistakes — as I have in the past in the aforementioned anecdote — but how we as a community respond to those mistakes and communicate around them will define the lessons we learn and the success we might achieve.

For the game’s senior bodies to ignore the standards they expect of others — for the want of walking down a corridor and knocking on a door — is pathetic.

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