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FAI saga tells a tale about Ireland

Comment & Opinion

DISGRACEDJohn Delaney, former CEO of the Football Association of Ireland, speaking at last year’s FAI Delegates Dinner and FAI Communications Awards at the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Edwin McGreal

The sorry mess that is the FAI’s financial woes, revealed after the long-awaited 2018 accounts were finally published on Friday, is a huge problem for Irish soccer.
The mismanagement of the association by its former CEO, the once all-powerful John Delaney, will have major implications for the game across the country. Its debt is over €55 million, and there are real fears over its solvency after auditors Deloitte were unable to guarantee that the governing body can continue as a going concern.
But it is not just a soccer problem, not an isolated incident in Irish sport or Irish life. It is very reflective of the Ireland we know in both sport and politics.
And while the finger of blame will rightly be pointed at Delaney this week, the reality is there will always be power-hungry, elusive people like him capable of exerting control with few consequences.
People like Delaney exist and will continue to do so. That’s where the need for proper oversight comes in. Full accountability and transparency. It was absent in the FAI, and it is in short supply in far too many Irish organisations and institutions.
We’ve seen it closer to home with Mayo GAA where the recent Mayo GAA International Supporters’ Foundation crisis has highlighted issues of poor governance, as well as concerns about the voicelessness of those on the ground, at club level, when it comes to the affairs of Mayo GAA.
And we see it all the time in Irish politics, where we have an electorate who often feel disenfranchised.
In theory, the systems for accountability were there in the FAI. However, too many of the people who were supposed to hold chiefs like Delaney to account were asleep at the wheel, and the consequences are being seen.  
As we saw with Delaney, if an organisation is in the wrong hands, poor practice can and does happen. Payments to Delaney were signed off with many on the board of the FAI unaware of this, and they failed to ask the required questions.

Parish pump
Much of what we have seen in the FAI comes back to a deeper Irish problem. What do we expect of our leaders? What do we demand?
It is a very Irish thing to vote for someone and back them not because they might have a far-reaching vision for the organisation or for the country, but because of what they can do for you.
So you have a scenarios like those of Michael Lowry, who, despite all his troubles – troubles that ought to have sunk any political career – continues to be an incredibly popular TD in Tipperary. Despite all their very questionable takes on many different issues, the Healy Rae family continue to be a runaway success in Kerry.
Talk to local TDs in Mayo. They can make all the impact they want at national level, but unless they’ve a hard working constituency office where people can get medical cards, road works or whatever minor, personal matters sorted, they will be weak electorally.
Ireland is full of former TDs who were put out of jobs for failing to grease the parish pump. Of course, it can be argued that they did so at their peril, but we must start to ask deeper questions of ourselves as a society.
This can be seen with John Delaney. He was popular because he managed to create this image of the champion of the grassroots.
Clubs and leagues all over Ireland, including Mayo, are culpable. They were in thrall to Delaney, thanks to his ability to take personal credit for funding – funding that clubs and leagues were entitled to apply for and receive.
Clubs and leagues were enamoured with an FAI CEO who would gratefully accept invites to dinner dances, never stopping to ask if such ceremonial visits were really what they wanted from their head.
But, again, it comes back to the question: What do we expect from our leaders? In the FAI instance, do we want a leader to manage at a macro level and have the vision to drive the organisation forward? Or do we – like the witless electorate in Dave McSavage’s brilliant satire – want a leader to do the soccer equivalent of ‘fix the road’?
Too many of the grassroots in soccer failed to ask questions and hold people like John Delaney to account, and Irish soccer is going to suffer on account of it for many years to come.
But will enough Irish people change their approach, change what it is that they demand from people in positions of power?
Don’t hold your breath.