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Dublin: 4 °C Sunday 29 March, 2020

Qualities of those making the changes are key, not the noise of critics and opportunists sitting back

John O’Sullivan takes a look at the criticisms directed at the FAI and Cork City, who have both been in the firing line of late.

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

TODAY FIVE YEARS ago, I stopped working full-time in football.

I didn’t realise it as I drove away from Limerick FC’s Bruff complex that it would be a full year before I took tentative steps back inside a League of Ireland ground.

I had completely fallen out of love with the game.

I had met brilliant people in the game nationally and internationally, many are still friends. The brilliant greatly outnumbered the bad, but I’d met too many agents who traded kids like commodities and too many bullying officials who treated clubs — and the welfare of employees within them — as playthings.

People I’d trusted had betrayed that trust and at times I badly handled the trust placed in
me. Most of all, I left football frustrated by my own inability to bring any kind of lasting change.

Two memories stay with me as low points, different times and places but a common thread. The first was when I tweeted that the Cork City board’s decision to let Tommy Dunne go was a mistake. I agreed with the decision itself, just didn’t understand the timing — letting him go so close to the end of a dead rubber season.

My next time at Turner’s Cross I ran into one of the board members who’d had to make that difficult decision and opened with “I should have kept my mouth shut”. His
response was “Yeah, you should have”.

I didn’t know what the board were dealing with and, as a former chairman, I should have had the sense to keep my opinions to myself and not make their job more difficult.

I list this as one of the times I’d screwed up.

A different low came in Thomond Park. We were under pressure financially at Limerick FC and with a match underway on the pitch, behind the stand I’d had an argument and ultimately futile exchange trying to implement what I saw as a necessary improvement.

As I walked across the South Terrace, a group in the West Stand started chanting “Sack the board” at me.

I didn’t take it personally, but as I looked over at the group of chanting fans at the front of a pretty empty 8,000 seat stand, the disconnect between the desires of those passionate about their club and the stark realities facing those running the clubs weighed heavily.

These things are on my mind this week as I read about the situations at the FAI and Cork City respectively.

I like Donal Conway and I think he’s important to the FAI right now. We can all point to the length of time he’s served on the FAI board and the ineptitude of the board as a unit — and its domination by the CEO — during his tenure.

However, he’s stepped up as President when it was needed, while others hid behind legal advice in Oireachtas committees. Conway hasn’t hidden from criticism, he’s accepted it.

He’s bought into the fact that change is needed and is actively pushing it with delegates
who will vote on the proposal.

He had already offered his resignation and declared his intention to step down.

When it was announced that he would be elected unopposed at the AGM, people were angry, and Shane Ross – who in my opinion is yet to offer anything worthwhile through this whole fiasco — was back playing to the gallery.

Donal Conway FAI president Donal Conway. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Pause and think for a second though.

As FAI President, Donal Conway has responsibilities to the game, particularly in the current climate.

The FAI has a rulebook that the membership has to follow to elect officers and Conway cannot leave a void in the role of President if no-one else fancies putting their heads on the block to be the face at Oireachtas committees and in the media, especially when the full details of the ongoing investigations, audits and reports are not yet known.

Conway is pushing a proposal to completely change the make up of the FAI board, bring in independent bodies and create a situation where – even if he was a despot – his voice would be weakened.

In the transition from the old board (four of which are already resigned) to a new board where thirteen will no FAI board experience – there must be some continuity from people who know and understand the rulebook and can advise the new members.

Conway has indicated that even if he does retain his role as President it would be for a year and then he’s gone – that his focus is in managing the transition and not retaining power.

If anything, his refusal to cut and run and leave more chaos in his wake should now, in the absence of any other emerging leadership, be welcomed.

The outcry about such a critical EGM as the vote on a complete restructuring of the board not being played out in front of the media is just moaning.

The members of the National Council must have the ability to debate, criticise, challenge and ask dumb questions without wondering if they’ll end up on the front page of the papers.

Conversation would be diminished in the glare of the media, questions
might neither be asked nor answered and so the needed change possibly would have a lower chance of success.

When change is needed, so are tough conversations and there must be a level of
confidentiality and trust during debates.

Cork City’s new board are in the spotlight in a way they might not have expected and facing similar criticism as that directed towards Conway, though on a much more local level.

Six out of seven of Cork City’s current board of management took their seats this year. Whatever situations on and off the field they’re dealing with, and whatever problems they’re working through they are “legacy issues”.

In a nutshell, they’re cleaning up a mess they didn’t create. For all I know, some of that mess might have it’s roots back in 2011 from a decision I made when Chairman of the club.

Fans shield their eyes from the sun Cork City fans at Turner's Cross during their Europa League qualifier last week. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Anonymous critics on social media, message boards and online forum are calling out current board members by name. People in the media, fed inaccurate snippets or reading those same anonymous posts are adding to a building ‘Sack the board’ frenzy. People are questioning whether FORAS – and by extension whether fans at all – should be running the club.

Unfortunately, some of the criticism is coming from areas who know all too well the challenges and difficulties the board are facing, some of the critics may themselves be at the root of some issues facing the City board.

Much is being made of the average age of the board with some highlighting that an average age just shy of 30 is too young for the burden of responsibility they shoulder. It’s nonsense of course.

Age is no guarantee of wisdom or credibility, as the FAI board have demonstrated over the past decade. There might be an average experience gap of 30 years between the Cork City and FAI boards, but I know who I have more confidence in.

I was 31 when I first got involved in FORAS and one of the most significant members was a 24-year-old woman who wrote a letter that not only saved us in the High Court but changed legal precedent in the country.

People criticising a young board based on their age are best ignored.

There’s a lot of change coming in Irish football and in Cork City, and it can only be positive in the long term. While we should absolutely hold those in charge to account and expect them to face tough questions, let’s at the same time remember that on the outside, looking in, you don’t always have the best view of who’s really making a difference.

There are people talking about both Donal Conway and the Cork City board who want change to happen faster, who want broad strokes of action – sometimes reaction in the absence of thought.

The most important thing is the qualities of the people who will make the changes, not the noise of the critics and opportunists who are sitting back.

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