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Dublin: 0°C Friday 16 April 2021
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Finding a sponsor, hosting a World Cup and not needing to read Champagne Football - New FAI boss lays out his vision

Jonathan Hill is the FAI’s first permanent CEO since John Delaney, and yesterday he explained how he plans to drag Irish football from its miserable recent past.

Jonathan Hill, the new CEO of the FAI.
Jonathan Hill, the new CEO of the FAI.
Image: FAI

MEET THE NEW boss, so different to the old boss he would rather not draw any comparisons. 

Jonathan Hill is the new Chief Executive of the Football Association of Ireland, the first permanent occupant of the role since a March 2019 report by Jonathan Hall recommended it was in the FAI’s better interests for John Delaney to instead become Executive Vice-President. (It soon proved to be in their best interest that he was gone out of the place altogether.) 

Hill has been in the job since last November, though is still working from his home in London and had hoped to do his first media engagement in person. That hasn’t proved possible, so yesterday he sat down for an hours-spanning series of interviews over Zoom. 

He spoke to us from his London home, and showed us a giant canvas painting of Nelson Mandela, whom he calls an inspiration. Hill’s previous job was at the head of the Laureus World Sports Awards, and their ceremony is famed for a 2000 address by Mandela. 

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.” 

(He isn’t the first FAI CEO to claim to be inspired by Mandela: in 2014, Delaney gave a lifestyle interview to the Sunday Independent in which he said Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was one of the books on his bedside locker at the time, along with Harry Redknapp’s autobiography.)

“I know how lucky I am to have had a career within the world of sport and how lucky and honoured I am to have this role as CEO of the FAI”, said Hill when reflecting on Mandela. “His words ring in my ear and if I can follow his mantra and approach when hopefully I will be doing things that are true to my personality.”

He sat beneath a framed picture of Pele embracing Muhammad Ali signed by the footballer. “To Jonathan, Good Luck.” 

“Perhaps he knew that I was going to get this job before I did”, deadpanned Hill. Pele, he said, was his first football hero, and he ranks the great man’s assist for Carlos Alberto in the 1970 World Cup final as the greatest pass ever played. 

Hill, by contrast, has been given a hospital pass: an organisation in which a bad reputation and worse debts have congealed in a pandemic. 

Since taking up the job Hill has been working lengthy days and spent a lot of time informing himself of the realities, structures and quiddities of Irish football, though his due diligence didn’t include reading Champagne Football, the bestselling chronicle of his predecessor’s costly misadventures. 

john-delaney The former FAI CEO, John Delaney. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He said has read the book’s extracts in The Sunday Times, and says he has “absorbed all of the important elements of the book” by confronting the old regime’s legacy by dint of his having his feet under the desk. Maybe he doesn’t need to read it, just as anyone who is sailing up the Congo river probably doesn’t need to study Heart of Darkness. 

Hill stressed he is here to focus on the future rather than the past, and swerved a question asking him how he is different to John Delaney, leaving it up to other people to draw the comparisons and merely presenting himself. 

“I will tell you who I am. I am, hopefully, a reasonably straight-talking Yorkshireman. I like to think I have an open and collegiate approach to doing business.” 

Still, it’s difficult to fully resist the tractor beam of the FAI’s recent history, given it is the most significant obstacle of the job he is trying to do.

Hill’s background is primarily commercial – he worked with the FA as a marketing executive at Euro ’96, and later struck a £300 million deal with Nike – and while there have been domestic deals done with SSE Airtricity and Bank of Ireland,  attracting a sponsor to the international squad is one of his biggest tasks. The board decided a deal with a gambling company is out of the question, and a deal won’t be done in time for next month’s World Cup qualifiers.

The FAI’s lousy reputation doesn’t help in that respect, of course, but as Hill pointed out, neither do the twin contexts of Brexit and the pandemic.  

Managing the FAI in its slough of debt and amid the stagnancy of the pandemic is a brutally difficult and time-consuming job, but Hill has curiously not yet had the opportunity to sit down with Robbie Keane, even though his plans to do so were flagged at an AGM two months ago. Keane remains both on the pay-roll (earning a reported €250,000 a year) and the fringes, unwanted by Stephen Kenny and unassigned elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, Hill said he is sympathetic to the berserk circumstances Stephen Kenny was dealt in his opening eight games, and described World Cup qualification as a “difficult, but not impossible” while saying he believed Ireland could qualify. He wisely shuffled around a question asking him to lay out his minimum expectations of Stephen Kenny in the year ahead. 

He grew mildly irritated at the volume of answers he had to give about the Wembley Videogate – the FAI sought only to establish the facts of what happened; no, he wasn’t offended by the video; no, he won’t advise Kenny on whether to show another video or not in future, given that’s the manager’s remit and not his; we may never find the source of the initial story to the UK Daily Mail – and didn’t disclose too much as to why Damien Duff upped and left. 

He did say Duff remained completely supportive of Kenny and his team and there was no single issue that caused him to walk out, instead seemingly an accumulation of problems. 

“It’s clear he had historical issues with the Association, and the running of the Association”, said Hill. 

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On Euro 2020, the FAI remain committed to hosting their four games in Dublin, though it seems it is contingent on getting supporters – even if it’s only 5,000 Irish fans – into the Aviva Stadium. A test event ahead of time doesn’t seem to be a requirement. 

He is optimistic, too, on Ireland’s joint-bid with Britain to host the 2030 World Cup, which is likely to face a humongous challenge from China. “If you ask me the question, ‘Do I believe we can win it?’ Yes, I do.”

On the domestic front, he recognised the need to increase investment in the League of Ireland and Women’s National League, and said he was open to any new structure for the leagues, pointing to his prior experience at IMG and his involvement in the setting up of the Scottish Premier League and the Dutch Eredivisie.

He also spoke of the youth structures in Ireland, admitting major investment is needed to develop academies to offset the Brexit-led end to cross-channel transfers before a player turns 18. He said it is up to the FAI to develop a strategic plan (which is in the works) which makes a compelling argument to the State and/or third parties in favour of investing in facilities. 

Meanwhile, there won’t be a renaming of the operation: ’twas ever the FAI, and the FAI it will remain. 

All in all, it was a moderate but accomplished affair. What struck this reporter was Hill’s frequently wielding the polished shibboleths of the corporate class. 

“I know we have some work to do in relation to the overall perception and positioning of the Association to allow ourselves the possibility of brands like SSE, the Bank of Ireland, Aviva, Boots and others to want to proactively be part of the story of Irish football moving forward.”

“We are in the process of creating our new strategic vision for the next four years and I think that will give us a real focus and importantly give all of the staff real KPIs to work against.”

“I will look at that in the round and hopefully as we create the strategic vision document and understand the core pillars of activity we want to commit ourselves to, people will understand we need the right infrastructure to support that moving forward. I will look at that, and will be on an ongoing basis.”

This is no criticism. While some of that jargon won’t appeal to the Irish fans without a LinkedIn profile, it will to just about everyone working in and with the FAI. 

The days of the celebrity sports administrator in Irish football are over and we should welcome these bromides of banal and colourless competence. It’s long overdue.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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