The FAI: Board Overboard

So. Farewell, then. We think. Former Football Association of Ireland (FAI) chief executive John Delaney. And the ENTIRE FAI board. All for the sake of keeping a £100,000 loan a secret.

On March 17th, the Sunday Times’ Ireland edition’s Mark Tighe revealed that Delaney had loaned the FAI €100,000 to cover “short-term cash flow issues,” a story nudged towards scandal by Delaney’s failed High Court attempt to injunct the paper into non-publication and to the string of revelations on subsequent Sundays about Delaney’s and the FAI’s financial conduct

On April 17th, the entire FAI board fell on its collective sword, a day after Delaney “stepped aside” from his newly-created FAI executive vice-presidency, taking ‘gardening leave’ (paid, natch) after an exact month digging his own FAI grave. As the Times’ Tommy Conlon noted, paraphrasing Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s mockery of Theresa May, “he fell on his sword…and missed.” However, he cannot credibly return from the merited slashing of his reputation.

FAI ‘events’ have developed a pattern. Each Sunday, Tighe has told tales out-of-FAI-school. And each midweek, Oireachtas (parliamentary) sport committee (OSC) meetings have asked FAI or FAI-finance and governance-linked protagonists various versions of “WTF?”

Delaney and ‘his; board are ‘survivors’; Delaney as a ‘teflon don,’ former US ‘businessman’ John Gotti’s nickname, after numerous organised criminal accusations against him failed to stick; the board as unabashed time-servers. But the beginning of everyone’s end arrived on 10th April, at an OSC hearing which outlasted eight hours…but felt longer still, after the FAI’s shocking collective display under questioning.

The OSC is an eclectic cross-party mix selected from Ireland’s Dail and Seanad (parliament and senate). It’s eleven members include some university-of-life-is-simple graduates, from the broad left of Ireland’s political spectrum. But the black-and-white disaffection of Sinn Fein TDs (Teachtai Dala, MPs)  Jonathan O’Brien and Imelda Munster, ‘Solidarity-People-not-for-profit’ TD Ruth Coppinger and centre-left Social Democrat Catherine Murphy was impressively, entertainingly fit-for-purpose. (Pre-)historic major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, had pertinent, zoned-in questioners too, in Noel Rock and Robert Troy respectively.

Oh…and there was ‘independent’ Michael Healy-Rae, not an OSC member but, as a TD, entitled to address, though not vote at, its hearings.  The customarily flat-capped Healy-Rae is the sort of throwback to 1930s rural Ireland of my parents’ generation which 1930s rural Ireland would ‘throw’ right ‘back.’ That he supported Delaney seemed appropriate. Coppinger called him an embarrassment. Which WAS appropriate.

The hearing had been set for January. But Delaney was on Uefa business in Switzerland. And he could have body-swerved the 10th April OSC, as he was no longer the FAI chief exec originally invited. Instead, he body-swerved EVERY question in the public interest and in which the public were interested, based on “legal advice,” which could conceivably have been “say nothing, John, or you’re toast.”

His prepared statement to the OSC was submitted deliberately late enough to preclude prepared questioning. And then he declared: “On legal advice, I am precluded from making any further comments in relation to the finances of the Association or my former role as CEO or the €100,000 payment either directly or indirectly.” How mere advice “precluded” him from comment remained unclear.

His statement explained the loan. FAI “cashflow issues” left it in danger of “exceeding its (Bank of Ireland) overdraft limit of €1.5m.” Delaney claimed: “We had only a few hours to resolve issues that would arise” if that limit was exceeded. So, “as a precautionary measure, I wrote a cheque for €100,000 from my personal account,” telling FAI finance director, Eamon Breen, to lodge the cheque if It was “clear” that the limit would be exceeded.  The precaution proved wise. An, unspecified, association creditor needed paying. The cheque was needed to pay them.

The issue “did not arise” at a 19th June board meeting, two days after Delaney was repaid. But while Delaney then informed FAI president Tony Fitzgerald and honorary secretary Michael Cody, he only told the other board members last month, three days after the Sunday Times started asking questions.

This contradicted the FAI’s statement last month which gave the impression…no…wait…’said’ that “the board of the FAI has been kept fully informed in relation to this matter at all times”  It remains unclear who OK’d that statement. At the hearing, FAI president Donal Conway couldn’t say. The “category” of the creditor was “commercially sensitive,” interim CEO Rea Walshe claimed. Tighe reported on 24th March that the loan had covered “payroll costs.” At the hearing, Rock asked if the creditor was “Dundalk FC,” league champions at the time. The FAI couldn’t “confirm or deny” this.

The OSC, discombobulated by Delaney’s stonewalling, were already restricted by non-Delaney legal limitations. In February, Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee acted beyond its remit in questioning the salary of a private company’s CEO (Rehab Group’s Angela Kerins). The FAI too, is a private company. And if the OSC needed reminding of this, Kerins’ solicitor, Aidan Eames, was a looming, silent presence at the hearing, sat behind his client…Delaney.

So, it was hours before questioning got forensic. Even then, it only confirmed the FAI’s cluelessness. Eddie Murray was asked how many FAI bank accounts existed, given that they were all empty in April 2017. “One,” came the answer…from the honorary treasurer…who was wrong. By TWENTY-THREE.

“Lads, how many of ye are board members?” O’Brien asked as he struggled to get coherence as to why the loan wasn’t in FAI accounts. Munster called Delaney’s display “an absolute disgrace” with “the only good thing” being that ”the public has witnessed it.” And she thought, appositely, that “anyone would have been glad to put record straight. But you haven’t.” Troy labelled the FAI’s answers “evasive, vague, noncommittal and ambiguous.” And, live from the end of his tether, OSC chair Fergus O’Dowd declared: “Sponsors are looking at this. The best thing you guys could do is move on.”

Sponsors ARE “looking.” Primary sponsor Three Ireland semi-warned that “corporate governance is of utmost importance (to us) and we expect the same from all (our) partners.” The ‘New Balance’ kit suppliers expect the FAI to implement all recommendations from up-coming corporate structural reviews. And League of Ireland sponsors SSC Airtricity will discuss “current developments…with the association at our next meeting.”

Money is talking. And the loudest is the €2.9m annual grant from Irish sport development’s statutory authority, Sport Ireland (SI). The FAI has already received half of 2019’s money. But SI announced on 9th April that they had suspended further funding because the FAI failed, after Delaney’s loan, to immediately notify them “of any material deterioration in its financial position,” a statutory “Grant Approval” obligation.

And when a prime minister speaks, and isn’t Theresa May, all other sounds are drowned out. And Ireland’s Taoiseach (PM), Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, spoke two days after the Oireachtas debacle. He didn’t think “anybody would be satisfied” by Delaney’s display. And he promised that the government would ensure that “the taxpayers’ money we give to the FAI has been used for the purpose intended” and would, in future, be “spent appropriately.”

Critics haven’t STOPPED talking. It has become semi-ritualistic for Tommy Martin, Virgin Media Sports (VMS’s) Champions League presenter to suggest that “before we get to tonight’s match,” Niall Quinn and Brian Kerr ‘discuss’ the latest FAI flounderings, often as Graeme Souness observes in amusement/horror. And it was ages before VMS ‘got to’ the Man Yoo/Barcelona tie on 10th April

A day earlier, Kerr lamented how “a loan by the CEO, which sounds quite benign, a good thing you might boast about, has become a situation three different consultancies are being paid to investigate” (the FAI asked accountancy audit firm Mazars to investigate the loan and accountancy consultants Grant Thornton to inspect its accounts). Kerr added: “We’ve had more statement from the FAI in the last couple of weeks than the Bank of Ireland would issue in a year,” which gave Souness the giggles. And he said the board were “complicit in what’s been going on” under Delaney and “should be getting out of it altogether.”

Asked if the OSC hearing changed his view, Kerr managed to laugh without smiling, capturing the prevailing mood precisely. “The FAI had the opportunity to be open, transparent, humble and truthful,” he noted. “We got evasion, arrogance, dodging and weaving and large doses of spoofology,” a word which sounds even better in Kerr’s broad Dublin twang. Quinn considered it “poor” (maybe not his first-choice of four-letter word) of Delaney to “stonewall legally.” He “thought (Delaney) had more in him than that” And “for the first time in my life, I was truly embarrassed by my association.”

Newspapers followed suit. In the Irish Independent, former international Stephen Hunt wanted Delaney to “come out fighting, protecting his team, showing leadership.” But this was an exception. Headlines elsewhere said Delaney’s “time” was “up.” He was an “inadequate strategist, indifferent diplomat and a raging egotist.” Another headline screamed “Finally, it’s end of the road for Delaney.” The Irish Sun took, merited, credit for revealing “the rot that set in under Delaney.”

Friday April 12th’s League of Ireland fixtures were perfect protest opportunities. ‘Rebel’ county Cork took its cue. And the authorities followed the FAI handbook of making bad situations worse, ejecting Cork City fan and above-mentioned OSC member O’Brien from their Turner’s Cross ground, after the unfurling of a ‘Delaney Out’ banner.

“I didn’t even have the banner,” noted a non-plussed O’Brien, who was removed for “impeding the gardai (police) from trying to remove the banner.” It was, he understated significantly to the Irish Sun, “a really bad look” even for an FAI with a photo-gallery of them, to so deal with peaceful anti-Delaney protests. Perhaps recognising O’Brien from the telly, stewards readmitted him sharpish and City apologised.

Two days later, Tighe told more tales. “Delaney racks up €40,000 on FAI credit card in six months” revealed spending on posh hotels, posh shirt and shoe shops and “executive dry-cleaning” (no money-laundering jokes there). Tighe also exposed Delaney’s propensity for ‘facilitating’ girlfriends past and present. “At least six seats” on Ireland’s official Euro 2016  flight to Paris “were reserved by Delaney for his family and the family of Emma English, his girlfriend.” And at the tournament, “the FAI hired Freddie Passas, English’s French brother-in-law, as interpreter and aide.”

Only the shamelessly cynical would view this largesse as answering the question “WTF is SHE doing with HIM?” But, last Sunday, Tighe and Times colleague Paul Rowan by-lined a story about Susan Keegan, Delaney’s previous girlfriend, whose name appeared in FAI records alongside €60,000 of, unspecified, ‘professional fees’ (minds out of the gutter, please).

Keegan denies receiving a cent and claims she has cut all ties with Delaney. “The name Susan Keegan” means as much to then FAI treasurer Murray as 23 of the FAI’s 24 bank accounts. And the FAI, with typical transparency, said: “An independent investigation by the association into issues of concern to the board is continuing and further comment is not possible at this time.” So. Everything’s groovy.

The board, and Delaney, remain driven by their lust for clinging onto power. Last Monday, Delaney offered to “step aside” from his executive vice-presidency “pending the completion of” that “independent investigation.” Delaney ultra-loyalists, Murray and honorary secretary Michael Cody, had already resigned, perhaps decisively diminishing Delaney’s powerbase within the board. But this stank of Sepp Blatter “laying down” his Fifa-presidential “mandate” in 2015, months before leaving the role in disgrace. And familiar names were unimpressed.

Robert Troy suggested that the FAI believed “two elderly men…could be sacrificial lambs.” He was “not exactly sure” if Delaney had stepped aside temporarily or permanently. Noel Rock re-re-iterated that Delaney should sod off yesterday, calling his offer “obstinacy and fudge” while wondering “who decides whether the voluntary stepping aside ends?” Munster was also after mass resignations and wanted “state funding” to be restored only when “they are gone.”

The board wrote to sports minister Shane Ross, expressing their “intention” to “step down to allow for a new board to be constituted in the best interests of football.” They “intended” to do so at the FAI’s July AGM. But the board could seemingly still seek re-election. And Ross wanted them to step down at an earlier EGM. He also tied vital state funding to improved (i.e. some) FAI corporate governance. €5m hangs in the balance, money to upgrade Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, which is due to host four Euro 2020 finals’ matches.

The next day, SI attached a puppet-show’s worth of strings to future FAI grant funding. In their opening statement to last week’s OSC hearing, SI announced an FAI audit “as extensive as necessary to satisfy (us) that the FAI is compliant with our terms and conditions of grant approval.” Future grants would depend upon “sufficient progress” with adopting the recommendations of the SI, Mazars AND Grant Thornton reviews.

Then, as if part of a conspiracy to maximise pressure, the FAI’s own auditors, Deloitte, announced that they had reported their clients on 12th April, for failing to keep “proper” accounts. Neil Cotter and Adam Higgins ‘exclusively’ reported in the Irish Sun on 18th April that THE loan was not the issue. Instead Deloitte had “concerns over newer developments in 2018 or 2019.” And a “well-placed source” multiplied the intrigue by suggesting it could be “something potentially big…something bigger than a €100,000 cheque.”

Yet getting rid of Delaney and co. could yet be the ‘easy bit.’ Until Delaney definitely departs, the popular Niall Quinn is not interested in any FAI role. He revealed recently that “The head of one of the biggest financial institutions said he liked my thoughts” and the FAI had asked him to set them out.

However, “as we were preparing that letter” the FAI announced Delaney’s resignation as CEO. “But…he hadn’t completely resigned. So, what’s the point?’” And with Delaney not “completely” resigning from his executive vice-presidency, and despite Quinn having “a bit of anger in me now,” he surely won’t relinquish his role confusing VMS audiences by saying “giving out” at random intervals.

Potential candidates don’t scream from the page. And there’s eleven directorships to fill. But even before all that, the past has to be tied-up. It could be an AGE before we understand, or even know, the whole truth about the Delaney years and their money.

Delaney may be done. But no-one really knows whether the damage he has done can be undone.