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'An adventure' - Hundreds call for change at Shane Ross' football forum

The42 report from the Mansion House, where a wide range of characters from across Irish football assembled to suggest where next for the FAI.

Darragh Maloney, Ciaran Kane,Stephanie Roche, Pat Fenlon, Stephen McGuiness, and Niall Quinn,
Darragh Maloney, Ciaran Kane,Stephanie Roche, Pat Fenlon, Stephen McGuiness, and Niall Quinn,
Image: MAXWELLS DUBLIN

Gavin Cooney reports from the Mansion House 

TO THE MANSION House, for its latest defiant show of democracy. 

It was there Sports Minister Shane Ross today led a forum of around 200 Irish football ‘stakeholders’, in the very same room as held the first Dáil in 1919.

Back then, those present at least had a shared concept of what they were declaring for (SPOILER: that didn’t quite last) – today’s attendees shared only the need for, rather than the nature of, change. 

Not that Irish football has great loyalty to convention. The stake holder is usually the one who plunges said stake to abruptly end a horror story – with six separate investigations ongoing, the FAI’s has a long time to run yet. 

Ross was determined to return a sport to its people today, talking of how he saw before him the “beating heart of Irish football.”

The stakeholders sat around 21 round tables laid out in front of him, with around 200 guests assigned their spots with a massive, wedding-style seating plan in the lobby. 

There was a hugely varied cast of characters: League of Ireland managers and players both past and present were there, along with club administrators, supporters, politicians, referees, and an economist. 

Brian Kerr, Emma Byrne, Garreth Farrelly, and Packie Bonner sent apologies for their absences.

FAI Board member Niamh O’Donoghue was there, as was Rea Walshe on her final working day as the FAI’s interim CEO. (Noel Mooney arrives on Monday.)

Both are on the Governance Review Committee, the group which will supposedly benefit most from the forum.

NO FEE IRISH FOOT STAKE FORUM MX-6 The forum. Source: MAXWELLS DUBLIN

Here follows some necessary, clunky exposition from Irish football’s crossover episode.

After opening remarks from Ross and his Junior Minister Brendan Griffin, Darragh Maloney hosted a panel discussion after which stakeholders were invited to discuss their ideas for the future of the game along with suggestions for the running of the FAI among those around their table. 

At each table sat an official from Ross’ department, whose job it was to record all that was said. All of the feedback will be collated and handed to the Governance Review group, who will use it to inform their final recommendations on changes to the structure of the FAI, set to be published on 21 June.

These will then be voted for at the FAI AGM at the end of July, the restoration of State funding being contingent on their adoption. 

A break followed the first roundtable discussion before another panel discussion preceded a second chat.

Niall Quinn appeared on the first panel, and hopes he would unveil his master-plan for the reform of the game fell flat when he announced he would be publishing his document after the forum.

He was eager to stress that this occasion was not solely about his vision – “We don’t have a monopoly on ideas” – and was irked that his plans were leaked to last week’s Sunday Times. 

Quinn nonetheless spoke in general terms of how this was about the “art of the possible”, whose two main pillars would be the restoration of trust and the attraction of investment. For the latter he made a couple of none-too-subtle overtures to the government; for the former he focused on the FAI. 

A few members of the crowd gave him a round of applause when he spoke of wanting to end a “culture of fear” among FAI staff, adding that he and his group would raise morale and “pat them on the back”. 

Beside him, the PFAI’s Stephen McGuinness spoke of the novelty of the players being given a voice – flagging the fact that no FAI board, council or committee has had player representation in its 98-year existence – and Pat Fenlon called for the League of Ireland to exist as an entity separate to the FAI.

The second discussion was more concrete.

Sarah Keane, President of the OFI (the artist formerly known as the OCI) and CEO of Swim Ireland, spoke of how the latter body reformed from the embers of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association.

She mentioned the imposition of term limits – the FAI adopted some earlier this year under government pressure – and the fact that their Treasurer must be a qualified accountant, a degree which presumably teaches the importance of knowing how many bank accounts you’re presiding over. 

Beside her, former FAI CEO Brendan Menton also had tangible proposals on how to reform the FAI, which included expanding the Board to comprise 10 elected officials and five, independent members from outside of football and for FAI Council meetings to be independently chaired.

He also called for the CEO’s role job description to be written down and clearly defined, saying that it is “crazy” that this hasn’t already been done.

Tony Considine of the YBIG Supporters’ Group was on stage too, and he cast doubt on the timeframe for reform, given the ongoing investigations.

He called for an interim board to be established, and voiced the ambient whispers that some existing FAI Board members are lobbying for re-election, in spite of Shane Ross being of the understanding that an entirely new Board will be elected at July’s AGM.

Menton, meanwhile, said he “had his concerns” as to whether the reforms would actually be passed at that AGM.  

NO FEE IRISH FOOT STAKE FORUM MX-9 Sarah Keane, flanked by Brendan Menton (right) and Darragh Maloney (left). Source: MAXWELLS DUBLIN

During the same discussion, Darragh Maloney did his best to rein in economist Colm McCarthy from his ‘rugby and GAA have won the hearts and minds’ shtick.

McCarthy was more interesting in his laconic lashing of Fifa and Uefa, and called on Shane Ross to use his position on the European Council of Sports Ministers to take more of an interest in these governing bodies, who resist political interference for fear it would “disinfect them, rather than infect them.” 

Those involved who spoke to The42 afterward found the exercise worthwhile, while Ross closed proceedings by calling it an “adventure”, accentuating that while Irish football is in the midst of a “disaster”, it can also be an “opportunity.” 

In sloganeering form, Ross declared that he saw before him “the unity for change.” 

The gritty details of today’s forum will emerge over the next couple of weeks, and then its worth can be truly assessed.

While Irish football can’t ever hope to come close to emulating the history and importance of today’s setting, perhaps it can exceed the FAI’s own meagre standards in that famous room – it was there they unveiled Steve Staunton as manager in 2006.

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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