It was up to the ever-pithy Brian Kerr to sum up the enigmatic, charismatic and ultimately flawed John Delaney, the man who for 14 years governed the fortunes of Irish soccer football.
“The only public figure I could compare him with in my lifetime would be Donald Trump,” said Kerr, in his distinctive drawl, before adding, “but that would be a bit unfair to Trump.”
The story of how John Delaney ran the FAI as a personal fiefdom was systematically uncovered in the RTÉ documentary which bears his name, itself based on the material in the current bestseller ‘Champagne Football’.
Over 15 years, Delaney had worked himself into a position of unfettered power within football’s governing body. He ran the FAI with an iron fist, he brooked no dissension, he did what he wanted, and the few who stood up to him were soon cast into the outer darkness. All this was balanced with a personal charm that captivated everyone he met, and he set out to ingratiate himself with the rank and file of the game whose sphere of activity is in the small clubs scattered across the length and breadth of the country.
But, as so often happens, John Delaney became the victim of his own success. As football’s CEO, he developed a sense of complete entitlement; he became the FAI; the finances of the organisation became his own finances; he lost touch with reality.
The thread that unravelled the Delaney career came in the form of an anonymous envelope left on the desk of journalist Mark Tighe. Inside was a photocopy of a cheque for €100,000, from John Delaney, payable to the FAI. Why would the CEO write such a cheque to his employer, Tighe mused? Surely an organisation with a €50 million turnover could hardly be so cash-strapped as to need a bail out from its chief executive?
Despite FAI stonewalling, the story was printed and, within weeks, more and more inside information began to find its way to Tighe, detailing the strange inner workings of the FAI.
One story led to another, but all with the same recurring theme. The FAI had run out of money, it had become a desperate scramble to even meet staff salaries. Tomorrow’s money was being called in to pay today’s bills, but all the while, Delaney’s profligate spending of association funds was going on unchecked.
The FAI had shelled out €30,000 towards the cost of the CEO’s lavish birthday celebrations at Mount Juliet. He himself was on a salary of €360,000, but not satisfied with that, it emerged that the FAI was paying €3,000 a month rent for his grandiose house in Wicklow. Delaney had free use of an FAI credit card, running up €40,000 in spending over a six-month period alone. Unknown to the majority of the board, he had arranged a €3 million golden handshake deal if he stayed in his post until 2020. Payments of €95,000 had been made by the FAI to his former girlfriend, Susan Keegan, for ‘professional services’, of which she claimed to have no knowledge.
By now, the Delaney lustre had worn thin. Called before the Oireachtas Committee on Sport to face a grilling, he took refuge in a stubborn silence, citing legal advice, and left the answering to his Executive members, who showed themselves to be as much in the dark about the association’s governance as was everyone else.
Only the Kerry TD, Michael Healy Rae, chose to come to Delaney’s defence.
“You will get what I would call the mother of all welcomes when you come to Kerry,” pronounced the cloth-capped one, before adding, “because your reputation and your respectability will precede you down the road before you land.”
Whether, in the light of subsequent developments, the latter was an encomium or a warning now seems hard to say.