Late one evening last month, a single tweet set off a chain reaction that would change Irish football forever.
Mark Tighe, a reporter for the The Sunday Times, told his followers in vague yet far from indiscriminate terms that John Delaney — the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland, either a messianic figure with unparalleled business nous or an impish, overpaid grifter, depending on who you ask — had sought an injunction against the publication of an article about him.
For many years, Irish soccer fans have called for his resignation, citing poor international team performances, a beleaguered native league, exorbitant wages, occasional loutish public behaviour.
But his downfall, as it turned out, arose as a result of a still-unexplained loan of €100,000 that he had given to the football association. Astoundingly, over €3,000 a month was being paid by the FAI to rent a house for Delaney in Wicklow — this, in addition, to his salary of €360,000.
“What was puzzling was John Delaney going to the High Court to stop the story [coming out]. It still is puzzling. The surface appearance that Delaney had given the FAI a loan and that the FAI then paid him back; why would you go to the High Court to have that stopped?” Niamh Brennan, an expert in corporate governance at University College Dublin, asks quizzically.
“At the very least, it could reveal that the FAI had some financial cash flow difficulties, but I’m not sure that would warrant going to the High Court.”
Throughout the years, Delaney’s reputation, for the most part, went unscathed. He was well respected by those running local junior leagues by way of his generosity and his having pledged to visit every soccer club across the country.
Surrounded by loyalists, most of whom had been serving alongside him or under his watch for many years, he appeared untouchable.
Daniel McDonnell, a football correspondent for The Irish Independent who has covered Irish soccer for over a decade, believes that the FAI’s growth as a business should not be conflated with success.
Delaney’s and the international managers’ wages — consistently one of the highest in the world despite being nowhere near the upper echelon of the sport — tells a story in itself.
“Ultimately, their biggest failure was the mistakes made around the financing of the Aviva Stadium. The mess they made of selling the premium tickets has hung over Irish football for the past decade,” McDonnell tells the Irish World.
In the wake of some financial mismanagement, there were widespread job cuts, wage cuts, League of Ireland prize money cuts, and, as McDonnell puts it, “general belt-tightening at all levels of the game”.
It emerged during a preposterously cartoonish Oireachtas hearing that most of the FAI’s board were kept in the dark for almost two years about the €100,000 payment.
Delaney and the organisation described it as a “bridging loan” and, when taken to task about the loan’s purpose, declined to answer a number of questions, based upon legal advice, which drew widespread criticism from former players, managers, supporters clubs, local leagues and players’ representative groups.
Delaney emanated invincibility: I’ve been over troubled waters before, everything will work out, his unruffled body language seemed to say.
“The Oireachtas committee hearing was a complete car crash for the FAI,” recalls Brennan.
“The unwillingness of them to answer questions. And John Delaney’s own personal behaviour — a lot of smirking, grinning, body language of backslapping — didn’t reflect his appreciation of the seriousness of the situation.”
Brian Kerr, a former manager of the national men’s football team, described the hearings as an “embarrassment” to Irish football. Former player Niall Quinn compared the board’s behaviour in the hearings to that of mafia figures — the self-imagined slickness, the sheer hubris.
Inevitably, Delaney, who had been appointed FAI executive vice-president following the disclosures, “voluntarily” stepped aside from the football association pending the “outcome” of a full review.
This came after Sport Ireland suspended all its funding to the FAI and after the government threatened to withhold millions of euros of public funding. The board had rallied around their former CEO, but they, too, were responsible — if not wholly culpable — for what has enveloped the association.
“The board have been very long serving. In modern governance terms, that’s not acceptable anymore. Boards are expected to have constant refreshment to protect the independence of the board,” explains Brennan.
“In the case of the FAI, the board was not merely long-serving, but also, to some extent, in thrall to a dominant CEO. There’s a question whether the CEO had captured the board.”
Company credit card
The loan proved to be the flashpoint of the controversy. But, almost a month after his initial bombshell report, a persistent Mark Tighe revealed that Delaney had used a company credit card to rack up a €40,000 bill over six months in 2016 — most of which related to seemingly personal purchases like takeaway orders, suits and cash withdrawals.
The loan, the rent, the credit card transactions — all which must, legally, be recorded by a company — went unrecorded. Now, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) is investigating the FAI board for potential breaches of company law relating to bookkeeping. Criminal sanctions now hang over the board and their former supremo.
Brennan, a leading corporate governance voice in Ireland, describes her thoughts on the FAI saga in bemused, stark terms (“I feel as if I’m in the middle of a jigsaw puzzle and a big piece is missing.”)
Words — accusations — being bandied around on social media about corruption, about cronyism, about fatal and cavalier mismanagement, are too definite, Brennan says.
Yet, the directors have legal duties of which there is “already evidence” that they breached. It goes deeper, though: what’s come to light is symptomatic of a wider malaise that may have taken the FAI.
“When there is a major corporate governance problem, it’s not just one problem,” Brennan says.
“It’s a whole lot of things going wrong, all at the same time. You have a problem with an unexplained transaction; you haven’t been keeping adequate accounting records; you have a problem with a long-serving board; you have a dominant CEO.”
Most commentators struggle to find something positive amidst the reputational carnage. Where does the FAI go from here? How does it even begin to recover?
Irish football’s very public downfall does not augur well for the immediate future of the game. “The game shouldn’t be about old men in suits taking a trip to the Dail,” says McDonnell.
Even if, after the removal of the current board, genuine change seems within grasp, McDonnell warns that a solution must go beyond a simple rooting out of the disease; a painting over the cracks. Instead, he says, structures — top-to-bottom — should be reformed, with the Irish league placed at its very heart.
“You need to start again and…construct a board that has a balance of people with different skills and backgrounds. They don’t need to have come through a committee structure or be representing a particular club or part of the country when they take a seat at the table.”
By Colin Gannon