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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Laszlo Geczo/INPHO The Bray players have been in the middle of a financial mess this season.
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'If the FAI want licensing to be taken seriously, they need to treat breaches more severely'
Bray Wanderers and Limerick are entirely responsible for their recent late payment of wages, writes John O’Sullivan.

Updated at 11.42

IF A CLUB can’t honour the contracts it offers based on the budgets it has prepared, it’s their fault.

It’s not the FAI’s fault, it’s not Donald Trump’s fault and it’s certainly not the players’ fault.

While a club can have ups and downs and a sponsor can pull out, it’s absolutely a club’s responsibility to budget sensibly and build in contingency for unexpected events.

If you put contracts in place in the knowledge there’s a significant risk that the attendances, sponsorship, merchandise that you’ve budgeted for might not be realistic, then you shouldn’t be offering contracts in the first place.

Bray and Limerick are entirely responsible for the late payments and any associated breaches of contracts, they are responsible for the upset and worry it has caused their players and they are also responsible for how their behaviour impacts on other clubs and the league as a whole.

Bad business at one club impacts others. If a club is outbidding you for players and artificially inflating player wages across the league based on a completely unrealistic budget and ambition, it affects everyone.

There are clubs who have overpaid players this year because they had to outbid Bray,
even though Bray might not have had the money. The negative headlines bring the game here and the name of the league into disrepute; it makes us look like a joke.

It makes it more difficult to attract sponsors as their willingness to become involved drops off. It’s here that licensing comes in. Well-run clubs can only affect their own budget and reputation, they are very limited in the way they can impact each other.

The FAI are responsible for the overall health and reputation of the league and through licensing they claim to have the tool to hold misbehaving clubs to account. Fran Gavin has been quick to come out in support of licensing and the success of the process, which do exist.

But there are gaps, and you can’t take credit — as the FAI have done — for creating the environment which allowed Dundalk to qualify for the Europa League group stages without taking the criticism for creating the environment which allows players to go two months without pay at Bray — and the public fallout — as a result.

When the criticism is raised, the FAI is quick to point to the independence of the licensing commission, who makes the decisions. This of course, is nonsense.

I worked with clubs for a number of years throughout the period in which licensing has been in operation. I have never met a member of the Independent Club Licensing Committee during the process.

All interaction is with the FAI. As Fran Gavin confirmed in a recent interview with Joanne Cantwell, the FAI appoint the licensing committee. Each and every club submit a detailed licensing package to the FAI and submit budgets, which are forensically reviewed in pre-licence meeting.

That budget review is with the FAI, not the Independent Club Licensing Committee.
Each and every licensing package is presented to the committee, but this presentation is done by the licensing department of the FAI.

Fran Gavin Donall Farmer / INPHO FAI director of competitions Fran Gavin. Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

The clubs don’t have the opportunity to review and input into the presentation, if queries are raised by the independent licensing committee during the presentation, no one from the club is present to answer this.

The input, answers and detail is provided solely by the FAI. The information on which the committee make their decision is based only on the FAI’s presentation, their view of a club’s licensing package.

Now, it can be argued that this allows for consistent and objective presentations, but the fact is that once the licensing package is submitted and the financial review held, clubs are in the dark until the hear whether or not they’ve been successful.

Even then, for all its alleged independence, we know that on at least one occasion, the CEO of the FAI has written to the licensing committee to express doubts and concerns about Limerick FC’s licence in the past.

Clubs are very rarely denied a licence, and clubs know that licensing is really only a check at a given point in time. If you have your house in order on 31 January you’ll get a licence. You can get a tax clearance certificate in December, valid for three months.

You can stop paying tax in February once you have your license and while the Revenue will chase you, your licence remains unaffected.

You can stop paying your office staff, they can approach the FAI but they’re not considered a footballing debt. They’re protected by employment law, but not by licensing. There’s no union to represent general managers, they might as well scream into a storm, the licence remains unaffected.

You can stop returning expenses to amateur players. You can refuse to pay for an operation to an injured player, even though you’ve claimed against that injury from the insurer.

The PFAI will very rarely go to bat for an amateur player, you could be on crutches with invoices coming in your door for the operation, but the licence remains unaffected.

You can even owe money to professional players on the eve of the licensing decision and come to an agreement with those players for a staged payment. Once an agreement on outstanding money is reached, you get your licence and you can miss the very first of those payments in February and the licence remains unaffected.

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If we really want licensing to be taken seriously then the sanctions to club who breach licensing must be serious. While licensing is a reflection of the state of a club in a point in time, there is ongoing monitoring, but it’s toothless. As Premier Division clubs, Bray and Limerick would have had to submit monthly management accounts to the FAI, showing how they are tracking against their submitted budget.

The FAI should have seen this coming, not only because of the monthly budgets but because we all saw it coming. In one pre-season game, Bray Wanderers listed every player as a trialist despite being packed with players from the previous year.

The reason for this is that it’s likely that the FAI had not registered any of the players to Bray, having concerns about the contracts that were crossing their desks. They still ended up signing up a squad they couldn’t afford, how strenuous was the push-back?

This is where one of the fundamental problems kicks in. If a club is tracking in an obviously negative direction, the FAI are largely ineffective until the following January.

Typically, the largest percentage of every professional or semi-professional club’s budget is players. The club and player agree and sign the contract and a copy rests with each, a third copy goes to the FAI for registration and by accepting the players registration, the FAI are accepting that the contract cost is in line with the budget the FAI has approved as part of licensing.

The FAI cannot go into any club and tell them they need to let players go, they cannot interfere in this way, if they tries, the PFAI who share the offices with them would be out in force, rightly.

The worrying thing about the Bray and Limerick situation is the special status players have in the league. As badly as they have been treated, because of the public impact of non-payment, what little money is there will be pushed towards them.

Office staff, programme printers, rent and other bills will be missed to pay players. Come January, those debts, not considered ‘football debts’ will only be considered in terms of the overall budget and the club claims of plans in place to honour debts.

The damage here as local people and businesses go unpaid is a silent killer for clubs in the league. Stories are shared and conclusions drawn. These days, social media gives you as much access to a player as a club.

People see through the spin, they see through the dodging of media interviews, they see through the evasiveness on those interviews that are accepted and they immediately see through puff pieces submitted from any organisation pretending to be an in-depth interview.

The questions around licensing are valid, and they won’t go away. If the FAI want the process to be treated seriously, they need to treat breaches with a level of severity that hadn’t been shown previously.

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