Trapattoni survives, but will soccer?

Sat, Oct 20, 2012, 01:00

The sport is facing a gloomy financial future in Ireland, and there are increasing grassroots calls for change at the top

THE FAROE ISLANDS on a Tuesday night was never going to draw a bumper crowd into the clubhouse bar at Templeogue United FC. But its special offer of three pints for €10 boosted the big-screen audience to 20.

A good night by ordinary standards, says the club’s secretary, John Cannon, for whom any extra revenue is welcome. “We have a [paid] coach, but his hours have been cut in half,” he says. “Fundraising is very difficult, and we have had to bring subscriptions down by €30 a head to keep people in the club.” As for the bar, “it just about breaks even. It pays for the lights and the showers.” Forget Giovanni Trapattoni with his inflated salary and elaborate backroom staff, not to mention the €360,000 man John Delaney and his extravagant socialising: this is the reality of Irish soccer.

On the club’s cramped AstroTurf pitch, a swarm of young players are breathing heavily from a floodlit training session. Behind some netting on the halfway line, footballers from the neighbouring St Jude’s GAA club, which shares the well-worn facility, do their drills.

“It needs resurfacing, but that would be another €120,000,” says Cannon. The club already owes €80,000 for the pitch, and South Dublin County Council is chasing the bill.

Pinned on a noticeboard inside, next to a Friends of St Luke’s thank-you letter for a charity fundraiser, are the names of the latest club lotto winners, as well as that of the recipient of a ticket to last weekend’s Republic of Ireland game against Germany. Templeogue is one of dozens of clubs that bought into a controversial Football Association of Ireland ticketing scheme for two 10-year tickets to the Aviva Stadium, paying €14,000 up front and a further €1,000 a year. The idea was to have a supply of tickets available for raffles and other fundraisers, but recent performances by the Irish team, combined with a slump in disposable incomes, mean resale prices have collapsed.

“You make a few bob on it, but it only goes to pay the FAI for the tickets, and the downside is you can’t do your own fundraiser.” While Cannon is happy to support the national team and says he is grateful to the FAI for supplying an extra couple of tickets for the Germany game, not all clubs are as philosophical.

“Pressure was put on us from the FAI,” says the secretary of another club, which bought two 10-year tickets at a higher price, along with a clutch of season tickets. We were told that as a respectable club we needed to support the football family. They put it very nicely, but you knew they were carrying guns, if you like, behind their backs. You can hardly give the tickets away now. We’ve just written them off.”

The club secretary didn’t want to be identified, knowing how intolerant the FAI is within the sport of even the mildest criticism. But there is simmering resentment at grassroots level at the way Delaney’s association is being run. Critics say while the club ticketing scheme may have been a new low, it continues a trend of sucking money from the grassroots up to the top. “The hierarchy in the GAA would be much quicker to pass out money than the hierarchy in the FAI,” is how one senior administrator in Dublin schoolboys football puts it.

The fiasco surrounding the sale of Aviva tickets lies at the heart of the FAI’s financial woes. It borrowed €74 million to fund the stadium development, which began five years ago, in a joint partnership with the Irish Rugby Football Union. To clear its debt it needed strong sales for its 10,000 Vantage Club premium seats. They were marketed between €12,000 and €32,000, which was seen as ambitious against the rugby union’s flat fee of €15,000 and an equivalent 10-year ticket price from the GAA at Croke Park of €11,600. Sure enough, the FAI underperformed, selling fewer than 3,000 Vantage Club seats at full price, according to some reports. The FAI insists 6,300 were sold, but it has never given a breakdown showing how many of these were at a discount or linked to other sponsorship deals.

At the FAI’s annual general meeting in July, Delaney said only interest was being paid on the loan. That interest amounted to €4.8 million last year, leaving the FAI’s net debt at €64 million in 2011. This is why, when it came to deciding whether to dispose of Trapattoni this week amid increasing dissatisfaction with his performance, cost was paramount. Severing his contract with more than 18 months to run on it would have meant an outlay about €2 million.

In the context of the FAI’s financial crisis, the association has been accused of turning down an opportunity to sell tickets in bulk at a discount at the start of the project, opting to chase higher profits instead. However, the FAI has denied “categorically” a widely reported claim that it rejected an offer from ISG, the company initially charged with marketing and selling the Vantage Club packages, to buy all 10,000 premium seats for €75 million.

The FAI also stands accused of allowing the cuts to fall disproportionately on coaching and club development. Although Delaney says he cut his salary by 10 per cent last year to show leadership, FAI accounts show grant aid to soccer clubs and leagues around the State was slashed by 29 per cent, or €377,000, in 2011.

For domestic clubs the problem is not just lack of funding but also debt. “We owe the FAI money; there’s no question every club does,” says one senior official at an Airtricity League side, who will speaks only anonymously. (“Personally I don’t mind being out there, but there’d be repercussions for the club.”) He says: “In other countries the association will pay you to stay in the league, but before we kick a ball we have to pay the FAI €19,000 in affiliation fees.

“We have to pay €13,000 to the referees, €20,000 for insurance, and we don’t get a penny for TV appearances. The latest thing is the quantity surveyor: the FAI says we have to get one in at the start of every year. It used to pay for them, but last year we got an invoice of €2,000 plus VAT.”

Meanwhile, clubs have lost the €15,000 annual grant for development officers, and if any complain publicly about the FAI they face the prospect of being fined under a licensing agreement. “When we signed the club licensing we sold our soul,” the club official says.

There have been small signs of rebellion, with anti-Delaney banners surfacing at league matches. However, “at the last two AGMs of the FAI there was not one question from the floor – that’s even after all of Delaney’s antics in Poland. What does that tell you?”

The FAI’s heavy-handedness was on view two years ago when Delaney blocked a plan by Limerick FC to invite Barcelona for a preseason friendly. After a court action, the dispute ended up in mediation, and Delaney sought to further defuse the row by allowing Manchester City to come to Thomond Park last August. His political skills have never been in doubt. A former treasurer of the association, he has come out on top in a series of internal power struggles over the past decade, playing a key role in the departure of the previous occupants of the top job. He travels frequently to clubs around the country, and is always keen to present any cheques that are going in person.

“Yeah, John Delaney came to open our clubhouse,” says Henry Keely at Finglas Celtic FC. “We invited him and he came [but] the FAI never gave us a penny.” Instead, the club raised €600,000 for the facility, along with its all-weather pitch, through sports capital grants, the local council and private fundraising.

With just eight teams, the club is a quarter of the size of Templeogue and has a tougher sell locally, with parents increasingly unable to pay the yearly subscription. “We are asking for €5 a week instead. Some parents don’t have it, but you can’t tell a kid they can’t play.”

The FAI could be facing another period of upheaval, especially if contagion around Trapattoni spreads to Delaney or if the Aviva ticketing debacle comes home to roost. But for clubs like Finglas Celtic there is little change in the offing. These clubs have come to expect nothing from their parent association.

“Whether it’s Dublin City Council or the FAI, the answer that comes back is we haven’t a pot to piss in,” Keely says. “I’m fed up hearing it. The clubs are being starved of cash because they keep on giving us the same answer.”

In numbers

€360,000 Current salary of the Football Association of Ireland’s chief executive, John Delaney. He said he cut it from €400,000 in 2011 to show “leadership”.

€377,000 Cut imposed by the FAI in its grant aid to soccer clubs and leagues around the State last year, a drop of 29 per cent.

€64 million The FAI’s outstanding loans, including interest, on the Aviva stadium development.

€45 million The FAI’s turnover in 2011.

€12,000-€32,000 The price range for annual Vantage Club tickets under initial 10-year sales scheme.

€300-€600 The price range for annual Vantage Club tickets offered to existing purchasers last year.

€1.5 million The current salary of the Ireland manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, half of which is paid by the businessman Denis O’Brien.

17 The number of goals conceded by the Republic of Ireland in their past six competitive fixtures.

Money and misery FAI controversies

1996 It is revealed the association used a controversial ticket agent known as “George the Greek” to trade tickets on the black market. The FAI’s president, Louis Kilcoyne, and its treasurer, Joe Delaney (father of the current head, John Delaney) resign over the scandal.

1999 The FAI announces plans for a national football stadium in Citywest, to be called Eircom Park. Bitter in-fighting leads to a swing in favour of the “Bertie Bowl” in Abbotstown, plans for which are later scrapped.

2002 The Genesis Report, commissioned after the departure of Roy Keane from the World Cup squad, is heavily critical of the FAI’s structures and culture. Brendan Menton resigns as general secretary.

2004 Fran Rooney departs as chief executive after a very public row with the then Fianna Fáil-led government over funding and performance issues. John Delaney replaces the former Baltimore Technologies chief, with a salary boosted to €350,000.

2006 In a botched team-management reshuffle, Brian Kerr is replaced by Steve Staunton, working alongside former England coach Bobby Robson. The arrangement ends in late 2007 after a series of poor results, including a 5-2 defeat to Cyprus.

2008 Giovanni Trapattoni is appointed on an initial salary of close to €2 million, plus a backroom team costing about €750,000 a year. Wages at the top of the FAI continue to rise, with Delaney’s pay creeping over €431,000 in 2009.

2010 The Aviva stadium opens. The FAI develop the venue with the Irish Rugby Football Union on a 50:50 basis but, unlike rugby’s governing body, fail to sell most of their 10-year tickets before the economy starts to turn.

June 2012 A disastrous campaign by the Republic of Ireland in Euro 2012 didn’t stop John Delaney from celebrating exuberantly with fans; their antics were captured in a number of YouTube videos.

October 2012 The FAI faces another financial challenge as it contemplates removing the underperforming Trapattoni, still one of world soccer’s highest paid managers.

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