Hill will officially finish up in his role as FAI chief executive on 30 April. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Jonathan Hill: The remote CEO who underwhelmed in an impossible job

Outgoing CEO struggled for big wins in a role that came with plenty of baggage.

AND SO ANOTHER day of turmoil at the FAI. 

Jonathan Hill is out as chief executive, and will officially finish up in his role on 30 April. Hill was at FAI HQ last Friday, but is not expected to return. 

Chief operating officer David Courell is stepping up to the CEO role on an interim basis, with a permanent appointment to follow after what the FAI describe as a “structured search”. 

FAI CEOs have assumed the long-term prospects and undignified endings of Henry VIII’s wives: Courell will be the sixth person to hold the job since John Delaney stepped aside in April 2019. All but Hill were described as interim. 

But at this point the FAI may as well stand for the Football Association of Interims. A long-serving interim women’s manager has begotten a long-serving interim men’s manager, while the interim CEO will be working with an interim communications and marketing manager. Any hope the FAI would leave massive upheaval behind with Hill’s appointment in 2020 has proved forlorn. 

The FAI were not commenting on the details of Hill’s exit today, though they have described it as a “mutual” decision between Hill and the board, which opens up the possibility of a severance package of some kind. Hill’s salary in 2023 was €258,000, and his contract ran until the final quarter of 2027. 

While the FAI’s announcement of Hill’s exit just after 11am this morning caught the general public by surprise, the writing has been on the wall for weeks. For Hill, there was no coming back from the appearance before the Public Accounts Committee in the third week of February, at which he tried to explain an erroneous payments in lieu of holiday pay.

You didn’t have to be plugged into the endless swirl of rumour and murmur in Irish football to know this: it was evident from the moment president Paul Cooke told the Committee that his confidence in Hill has been “challenged by the recent events”. 

The beginning of the end for Hill came just prior to last year’s FAI Cup final, when it emerged that Sport Ireland had withheld funding to the Association when an audit revealed Hill’s remuneration breached the limit allowed under the terms of the State bailout of the organisation. 

Hill was €20,000 over the limit, because of benefit in kind not paid on travel expenses and cash received in lieu of holiday pay, which is forbidden under the rules of the FAI’s employee handbook. He repaid both and Sport Ireland released the funding. 

The holiday pay became the decisive stumbling block and, consistent with many controversies in Irish public life, the greater problems arose in the explanation than in the act itself. 

Hill and the former chairman Roy Barrett earned the ire of some grassroots members ahead of a virtual EGM vote in November, at which FAI delegates were asked to vote on a rule change to ensure the government-mandated gender balance on the FAI’s board. If the delegates did not approve the proposed changes, Hill explained, the FAI would lose half of its State funding. 

It emerged later that week that Hill’s salary issues meant that State funding had already been suspended, and that this wasn’t explained to delegates at the EGM caused huge anger. 

jonathan-hill Hill's appearance in front of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee signalled the beginning of the end. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

But worse came with the explanation. First, Hill told a December Oireachtas Sport Committee that he “did not push” for the holiday payment, and when Alan Dillon requested an email chain to verify the claim ahead of February’s PAC meeting, the documents arrived late and largely redacted. 

Hill explained he didn’t formally ask for the holiday pay, but that he referenced it in a “throwaway line” in an email responding to a junior employee requesting for her own holiday pay. 

This explanation that it was all a misunderstood joke stretched the PAC’s credulity, and they were incensed by the redaction of the emails, which included the “throwaway line” — “Can you negotiate the same for me please?!” — that Hill was nonetheless happy to read into the record. 

The FAI said they made the redaction decision following legal advice and to protect the identity of the junior employee, but that decision evidently stopped short of the transparency the PAC expected. The redaction wasn’t Hill’s call: it was a collective board decision, and one on which they should reflect. 

But the fallout was such that Hill could not survive in the role after Cooke’s admission of “challenged” confidence. Cooke perhaps deserves credit for his candour in front of the committee, but equally, it is worth asking why he didn’t hold a united front with chairman Tony Keohane, who expressed confidence in Hill.

The FAI sought external communications advice prior to the PAC meeting, and it’s hard to imagine they were advised to provide two different answers to the predictable question as to whether they retained confidence in Hill. 

But ultimately, Hill lost the confidence of too many members of the board, and it culminated in today’s announcement.

It is imperative the FAI retain the confidence of government, from whom they are seeking €517 million over the next 15 years to invest in the country’s ramshackle infrastructure. The outing at PAC, with its throwaway line and its redacted emails, plainly damaged those relationships. The board have decided they need a new CEO to repair the damage. 

sky-announced-as-the-new-primary-partner-of-roi-mnt-extend-partnership-with-roi-wnt Hill negotiated a new sponsorship deal with Sky in the final days of his tenure. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

In truth, Hill’s position was uncertain even before PAC. He cut an isolated figure on the day of the meeting, and some voting delegates in Irish football never got over the fact he did not relocate to Ireland to do the job, continuing to commute from London and staying in the Castleknock Hotel. The former chairman Barrett was a staunch backer of Hill, trusting in his ability to do the job remotely. His decision not to move here was never explained by the FAI, so we should leave open the possibility he had family or personal reasons for not doing so. 

Some didn’t take to Hill because he was an outsider but that was part of the rationale of his appointment. He landed the job in November 2020, ahead of a list of candidates that included OFI president Sarah Keane. He made a virtue of the fact he arrived to the unique political landscape of Irish football without “baggage”, telling The 42 he hadn’t read Champagne Football, the book which told the story of John Delaney’s rise and fall. It was a surprising admission,  though perhaps he didn’t need to read it under the same principle that a well-thumbed copy of Heart of Darkness isn’t necessary if you’re already halfway up the Congo river. 

Hill’s background was primarily commercial, serving in the role for Euro 96 and then with the English FA, and his main MO was to use that skillset to bring more money into the cash-strapped FAI. Three were out as primary sponsor by the time Hill arrived, and it was only in the final weeks of his tenure that Hill secured Sky as their replacement, extending the successful sponsorship deal Hill had struck for the women’s team. A clue as to his medium-term job prospects was evident in the fact Hill didn’t do any media interviews at the sponsorship announcement. In fact, he hasn’t spoken to the media since PAC, blanking the reporters gathered outside of Leinster House. 

The lack of a main sponsor became a stick with which Hill was repeatedly beaten, and he regularly bridled at the criticism. He did help build up the value of secondary sponsorships, most notably with new kit suppliers Castore. (The total value of the Castore and Sky deals is understood to outstrip what the FAI were getting from Umbro and Three a few years ago.) 

marc-canham-with-jonathan-hill Hill brought in Marc Canham, left, as the Association's director of football. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Hill built a new senior leadership team around him, with his highest-profile appointments – Courell and director of football Marc Canham – arriving from England.

Those among the football family who agitated against Hill around November last year talked about “taking football back”, saying Hill was replicating John Delaney in surrounding himself with loyalists, which was an unfair impression. One FAI source who is sympathetic to Hill said some of the game’s constituents didn’t like Hill as “he could not be controlled” to do the bidding of one section of the Irish game over another. 

The League of Ireland was given more emphasis than previously during Hill’s tenure: a natural consequence of Brexit, as much as anything else. As league crowds boomed, the FAI were committed to acknowledging their own problems, and the 15-year infrastructure plan released last year was followed by Canham’s player pathways plan earlier this year. The sheer acknowledgement of their issues and a joined-up plan to tackle them are beacons of genuine progress at the FAI, from an admittedly lousy base. 

These are glossy, impressive documents, but not enough progress has been made in finding the money to fund them. One of the reasons Damien Duff has been speaking up about the need to fund LOI academies is because some frustrated Irish football figures have made him aware of the glacial pace at which conversations around that funding is happening. 

Hill had a huge amount of work on his plate at the FAI, but allowing for that, his organisation did not exactly move at warp speed. It took months to agree a contract extension with Stephen Kenny, for instance, and Jim Crawford’s renewal at U21s boss was so slow that his initial contract lapsed before negotiations opened. Vera Pauw may have struck a nerve when she told Richie Sadlier last week that “it’s more important that we look right than perform right”. 

The impression of Hill’s FAI was one which paid too much attention to PR, to the point that Stephen Kenny was asked to break with a long tradition and not grant interviews to the travelling Irish media at the Qatar World Cup, as the FAI did not want headlines associating them with a controversial tournament. They did also try to qualify for the same tournament. 

Hill has remained involved in the search for Kenny’s successor since the PAC appearance, but it too has been remarkably drawn-out. The FAI promising an announcement by the end of this week, and Hill is unlikely to be around to answer any of the many questions about the process. 

There were other notable achievements, not least an agreement of equal pay between the women’s and men’s senior teams, and the qualification for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. The FAI are usually damned in comparisons with the IRFU, but they are miles ahead when it comes to the women’s game. 

The co-hosting of Euro 2028 is a headline achievement, but given the bid ran unopposed, it couldn’t lose. 

While the holiday pay was a major blunder, Hill’s FAI did continue to do the grinding, dreary work in implementing the government’s suite of 163 governance overhauls, with which they are now 97% compliant. 

Now that Hill is out, attention will turn to his permanent successor. Board member Robert Watt is understood to believe he would be a good replacement, while there will be some boardroom support for the return of Noel Mooney, currently the CEO of the Welsh FA. 

Whoever is next, the FAI are now thrown back into limbo and uncertainty, which will guarantee more time is wasted in the pursuit of funding for the sport’s infrastructure. Landing that money is not some wooly ambition: it’s an emergency.

But trust the FAI to hold it up by getting in their own way. Sigh. 

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