Brendan Crossan: The FAI's 'Banana Republic' days are numbered - but the hard work hasn't even begun
AS John Delaney ran on to the pitch punching the air and saluting the Republic of Ireland fans in the Le Coq Arena in Tallin eight years ago, reporters rolled their eyes and continued to type furiously to beat the deadlines back home.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s side had just beaten their hosts Estonia 4-0 in their Euro 2012 first leg play-off game and were virtually certain of qualifying for their first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup finals.
It was cause for a night of celebration.
For the FAI chief executive to run around the pitch like some kind of rock star wasn't what everybody had in mind though.
The Waterford native wanted to rip up the CEO stereotype of a stiff upper lip and grey suit who blends into the background and instead tried to cultivate a 'man of the people' image.
And yet, as far back as 2007, ‘Delaney Out’ banners were being unfurled during the Republic’s scratchy Euro qualifier away win over hopeless minnows San Marino.
But Delaney rode out the storm.
Regime change took place: Steve Staunton was soon replaced by serial league winner Trapattoni. And the heat was off Delaney again.
The former FAI chief was definitely a man for big projects. The Aviva Stadium is a fine arena these days but the failure of the Vantage Club ticket debacle heaped more debt on the FAI.
Under Delaney’s watch, the Association always paid over the odds for a senior international manager.
Trapattoni qualified for one major tournament, was desperately unlucky in another and floundered in his third and final attempt.
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane qualified for one and went close to back-to-back qualifications before out-staying their welcome by a year.
With Mick McCarthy coming back for a second spell in November, the feeling was that Stephen Kenny’s promotion to the senior job post-Euro 2020 was seen as a move to appease the League of Ireland constituency – Delaney’s “problem child” and ultimately his greatest opponent – even though Kenny’s managerial credentials are impeccable.
While lofty financial plans were drawn up to pay for the Aviva Stadium as well as waving bloated salaries to big names to take the senior international job, the women’s international team were handing over their tracksuits to a Republic of Ireland youth team at Dublin Airport before threatening industrial action in 2017 for basic entitlements.
Grassroots structures were rotting.
Facilities were crumbling, while there was wholesale derision among the League of Ireland clubs when in 2016 they were handed €5,000 each by the FAI for “strategic funding”. (Some clubs rejected the paltry sum in protest).
Former youth team and senior coach Brian Kerr shredded Director of Competitions Fran Gavin in the RTE studios and in full glare of the nation for the FAI’s token approach to fixing the game's many ills.
“The frustration levels across the league are remarkable,” articulated Kerr, “the lack of facilities for women going to matches, the pitches, the dressing rooms are desperate all around the country.
“And nothing has been done about it for years and years, and talking about strategic planning now for five years’ time is a load of bunkum. A 100 grand is a pittance compared to the type of money the FAI are bringing in.”
Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk who performed miracles in the Europa League in recent seasons did so in spite of the FAI, and yet the the latter had to wait for its Uefa prize money even though the FAI had no right to withhold it.
For a long time, there has been a distinct whiff of malpractice around the FAI board, while the 60 members on the FAI Council could hardly be described as the most diligent watchdog.
At recent FAI AGMs, members of the press were treated like errant schoolchildren with burly door-men keeping a keen eye on their movements.
The AGMs themselves were staged, farcical affairs where dissent didn’t get beyond the hotel gates.
This was how the FAI conducted its business, where self-preservation became its raison d'être.
At domestic and international matches, ‘Delaney Out’ banners were firmly disapproved of and those carrying them were often on the receiving end of some heavy-handed treatment.
Since 2012, there have been job losses at the Association while staff took two pay cuts, although they were recently restored in the Labour Courts.
Delaney also took a pay cut in 2012 - from €450,000 to €360,000 – but before too long the former CEO recouped some of that money when The Sunday Times revealed the FAI had being paying his €36,000 per year rent since 2016 helped to offset.
The newspaper’s drip-feed approach over the last three weeks had devastating consequences for Delaney and indeed the entire decrepit structures of the FAI.
Indeed, The Sunday Times delivered a master-class in investigative reporting which put the various scrutiny committees in Leinster House to shame.
This is how Ireland works: You might be able to get away with lending your employers an undeclared €100,000 “bridging loan” – but there is no coming back from getting your rent paid for, using the FAI credit card to pay for your snazzy dry-cleaning, buying a few shirts from Thomas Pink and racking up a €4,474 bill for stays in the Ritz Carlton five-star hotel in Dubai.
Astonishingly, nobody on the FAI board said so much as 'boo'.
No wonder Sport Ireland pulled the plug on public money going to the FAI while twitchy sponsors demanded their names were removed from the FAI website.
Through everything, Delaney had the temerity to accept a new, madey-uppy job title in the association – Executive Vice-President – that peddled the dream he could still be at Uefa photo shoots in Dublin in 2020.
Through everything, Delaney had the temerity to stonewall the Oireachtas Committee in the belief that a thousand character references from every nook and cranny of football would allow him to ride out another storm.
The football community should have smelt a rat when Brian Kerr was continually left out in the cold even though he possessed the skills set and experience to help put better structures in place.
The Drimnagh native surely has a major role to play in the anticipated regime change coming down the tracks.
Thankfully, there will be no more CEO laps of honour.
The FAI’s Banana Republic days are at an end.
But the hard work in rebuilding southern football's reputation hasn't even started yet...