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Don't expect Niall Quinn to be a white knight for the League of Ireland

The former Ireland international’s proposals are not encouraging, writes John O’Sullivan.

Niall Quinn: former Sunderland chief is arguing for a network of academies.
Niall Quinn: former Sunderland chief is arguing for a network of academies.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

ONE OF MY favourite League of Ireland urban myths is that a league marketing presentation made to the FAI some years ago was very much inspired by a thread on the online football forum ‘foot.ie’ where members had been bouncing LoI promotion ideas off each other.

The presentation, in this scenario, became a guideline used for Club Promotion Officers and the ‘Grow your Club’ manual issued by the FAI to League of Ireland.

Even if the story is true, taking advantage of information or ideas in the public domain, packaging them correctly and presenting them to the right audience isn’t a negative. Club promotion officers were a huge positive to clubs which gave a genuine sense of partnership with the FAI and a mechanism through which clubs could learn from each other.

It seems to me that much of Niall Quinn’s activity these days is similar. He’s made straightforward proposals. Many have already been proposed by others and some are already working projects within clubs.

The former Ireland striker will appear before government officials in the coming days to put forward proposals for football academies for league clubs, at a cost of €40million.

Some of Quinn’s more ‘off-the-cuff’ suggestions have been rightly ridiculed though some of the reaction such as Eamonn Sweeney’s in the Sunday Independent recently was pretty brutal, even for someone like me, who’s well able to dish out criticism.

Okay, Quinn has rarely shown interest in the league but I don’t buy into the idea that someone has to be a lifelong fan to take an interest or offer a suggestion. Former Volkswagen CEO Simon Elliot was passionate and vocal about the Irish game in his three years here.

I’m quite sceptical about Quinn’s suggestions – which I’ll explain shortly – but it is important to recognise the good with the bad. There are positives to his recent media push. The League of Ireland needs attention and Quinn’s profile as a successful player, a former Irish international, a former chairman of Sunderland AFC and a current pundit means that when he speaks, people listen.

He has become a conduit through which questions about the League of Ireland and its governance are being discussed outside the sphere of the dedicated journalists already covering the league and asking questions of the FAI. Whether you like or loathe Marian Finucane’s weekend show, you can’t ignore the audience when Quinn was given airtime to discuss Irish football and the League.

His questions around finance of the league, the FAI’s governance, investment and the tax breaks afforded to horse racing are worthy of discussion. They have gotten people talking.

He’s ruffling FAI feathers, putting genuine questions in the public domain with the FAI and John Delaney due to appear before an Oireachtas committee next month. Quinn has stated he’s spoken to some people in government and Shane Ross’s sudden interest in the term-lengths of the FAI board may not be coincidental. Quinn is the one driving public conversation in the lead up to the Delaney’s Oireachtas appearance.

Quinn is telling us it’s a “now-or-never” moment in Irish football.

Is it though? Are we really at our lowest point? While we recognise that the game needs to – and can – improve, why the sudden urgency from Niall Quinn? What has he seen that we’ve all missed that means action must be taken now?

He is entitled to be curious, then interested and then passionate. But I don’t think it’s that. The real question is why, and why now?

Quinn’s role as an adviser for RedStrike Media, run by Dubliner Mike Farnan,  is important. Farnan, is a very successful sports marketeer – he’s worked with the Jordan F1 team and Parma; he was head of international development at Manchester United and held a similar role at Ferrari, when they wanted to expand into China.

He has recently delivered a €100m football academy in Vietnam, funded largely by the Vietnamese government and Vingroup; Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are ambassadors. He was part of a consortium that tried to buy into Leeds in 2014. He operates at a very high level and he has plans for Ireland.

Quinn also hired Farnan in 2011 while chairman of Sunderland in the role of “International and National Marketing Director” though they only overlapped for a short time before Ellis Short took over Sunderland owner.

In an interview with Simon Rowe in the business section of the Irish Independent last August, in reference to developing an Irish facility to mirror St George’s Park in England Farnan stated: “We opened the VPF Academy in Hanoi last year. We are in advanced talks about opening similar facilities in Lithuania, New York, Beijing, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia.

“We are now exploring the idea of opening one in Ireland. This is about investing in Irish football’s future. We are open-minded as to where we will build it.”

This article, from last summer, states that to build a single academy Farnan had “recruited former Irish football star Niall Quinn, ex-Ireland manager Brian Kerr and football legend Paul Scholes as advisers to the project”.

A general view of Turner's Cross Turner's Cross: Quinn says it's now or never for the domestic game. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Farnan and Redstrike oversee projects of this type globally; the money to support the Vietnam project came from government and Vingroup, the type of corporation that Quinn has mentioned in his corporate social responsibility angle.

This is why I’m sceptical; as well as this media storm and ongoing press coverage, we have a marketing company looking to create a network of football academies, the construction of which that government and corporations would help fund.

The fundamental question coming from Quinn is if this idea would benefit Irish football. We can take the nonsense about bringing Brazilian players to Ireland in vast numbers to populate the league and put it to one side. We can drop the bluster and maybe have an open and honest conversation.

But I see nothing in all the talk that helps League of Ireland clubs or shows a genuine interest in the league. While the opening of the conversation has positives in some respects, League of Ireland fans need not hold out much hope of change through Quinn.

- Originally published at 12.56 

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