FAI's little game was rumbled and backfired


It has become very difficult to get even the most benign bit of news out of the FAI, writes MALACHY CLERKIN

FOR THE older soldiers among the press corps that follow the Republic of Ireland soccer team around, this was a week lived in flashback. The team playing as though they were only mildly acquainted with one another. Somebody in the FAI going all Deep Throat and briefing against the manager. A press conference cancelled on a flimsy pretext, both sides pointing the finger at the other – quietly and off the record, of course. Bullets flying, bombs exploding. The smell of a grovelling apology in the morning.

It felt like old times. Like the end of reigns of managers past. Like Moscow in ’02, like Nicosia, like Serravalle. For God’s sake, Serravalle. That was the night that San Marino nearly drew with Ireland in 2007, the night the little band of Irish travelling support raced over to abuse John Delaney rather than Steve Staunton after the equaliser went in. The night we were told (with a straight face!) that Ireland always do badly in February matches. Serravalle – you weren’t there, man. You wouldn’t understand.

Anyway, the point is, that was all supposed to be ancient history. Not the football part of it necessarily – the press can’t spend two campaigns cheerfully remarking on how Giovanni Trapattoni is a lucky manager and then swoon in horror when that luck runs out all at once. The more of these campaigns you cover, the easier it is to make peace with Ireland’s place in the footballing world. Sometimes we’ll bloody the noses of the higher-ups, sometimes we’ll get a tonking. Usually we’ll put the lesser sides away without an awful lot of fuss but every once in a while they’ll remind us that we’re not Spain. Ever since the start of the Euros, the latters have combined and the formers have melted away. It happens.

No, what was supposed to be ancient history was all the subterfuge. The cloak was generally thought to have been hung up some years ago, the dagger long since sheathed. Time was, you could always rely on the FAI for a good old-fashioned leak. It was the surest outward manifestation of the association’s inner turmoil. Much like Homer Simpson opining that just once he’d like to be called “Sir” without it being followed by “You’re making a scene”, folk inside the organisation yearned for the day they would read of the FAI without seeing “shambles”, “fiasco” or “another fine mess” anywhere close by in the copy.

Yet nothing told of the nest of vipers the place had become in the early to mid-noughties better than the flow of judiciously-placed stories that washed out into the pages of the national press. Sometimes it was a grudge or a beef that was behind it, often it was a genuine snippet from somebody inside who couldn’t stand idly by some of the decisions that were being made. One way or the other, it was the rare move that was made that didn’t find its way into the public domain. In the soccer-writing press, we would lap it up while simultaneously tut-tutting at the shoddy way the association handled its business.

In the dog days at the end of Brian Kerr’s time in charge, I remember getting a text inviting me for a quick coffee from one of the FAI’s media people. It was in the middle of a harum-scarum October week, not unlike this one. The qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup had ended the previous Wednesday with a goalless draw at home to Switzerland and it was no secret to anyone that the FAI – and Delaney most significantly – wasn’t of a mind to give him a new contract. The decision would come down to the 10-man board of management but just to shore up their argument in the aftermath, the association got out and spun against Kerr.

We went to Doheny Nesbitts, of all places. In a quiet corner, the FAI man went through a list of reasons why they felt it was time to move on. The world ranking had fallen, the seeding had slipped, the technical and over-analytical approach of Kerr and his team wasn’t getting the best out of the players. In truth, he wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t already reasonably well-known. Neither, it turned out, was he interested in actually ordering coffee so I left there both none the wiser and just a little undercaffeinated.

Whatever about the facts and figures of our little spin session, it was the very fact that he thought it was important that we meet that was most interesting. The FAI were going to do what they were going to do with regard to Kerr, no matter what the press wrote or said. The case for getting rid of him was more or less as strong as the case for keeping him and for every columnist calling for his head, there was another asking who would be better. (The one thing nobody dreamed at the time was that the FAI’s answer to that question would turn out to be Staunton. Rest assured there was no invite for coffee at the end of his term a couple of years later.)

The thing was, even by then – October 2005 – the leaking culture was dissipating in the FAI. From the beginning of Fran Rooney’s term as chief executive, board members and sundry officials had the law laid down for them. It was even more pronounced when Delaney rose to the top. Inch by inch, desk by desk, the number of people within the FAI who would take a call from a journalist has ebbed away ever since, to the current point of near paranoia. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to get even the most benign bit of news out of the place that doesn’t come attached to a press release.

Until this week, when out of the clear blue sky, the Irish Independent was suddenly quoting “a senior FAI source” on Monday and suggesting that Trapattoni could be on the way out. “If he is to go that could all happen within days of the team returning home from the Faroes,” said the source. And then a follow-up on the day of the game – again quoting a senior FAI source – suggesting that he could save his job with “a 10-0 win or something like that”.

By the standards of six to 10 years ago, those stories wouldn’t have been so remarkable. By the standards of today, they were dynamite. They framed the press coverage for the week far more than anything that happened on the pitch did. In no other circumstances would something so unTrapish as Robbie Brady’s inclusion in the team for Tuesday night have been so glossed over in the pre-match press conference. As it was, just about every question was the same question – would Trap survive the week?

This is probably a good juncture at which to nail some myths. First, this was no media conspiracy against Trapattoni. The quotes came from within the FAI, not from the media. It can possibly be argued that whoever supplied them was using the Indo to push an anti-Trap agenda but that’s not the newspaper’s fault. Nor, to be honest, is it their concern.

Whoever the source was, if they were high enough to deserve being called “a senior FAI source”, there isn’t a newspaper in the country that wouldn’t have run those pieces. Someone in the FAI wanted it put about that the manager’s days were numbered. At some point between Sunday and Wednesday, that view either changed or it didn’t get enough traction within the Board of Management. It doesn’t mean this was a media-driven putsch.

Second, the idea of a media conspiracy against a manager – any manager – just doesn’t hold water. Liam Brady has peddled this in the past with dark mutterings of journalists getting together on away trips and dreaming up new and interesting ways to get rid of the manager. Ignoring for a minute the fact that he can only be coming up with this second-hand – after all, he’s either been in the RTÉ studio or with the team during those trips for the past 14 years – you have to wonder what he means by it. Does he think that hacks sit around by the dozen in some eastern European shebeen and plot the downfall of the latest victim? Talk about an unimaginative use of your time.

The glaring truth of it is that nobody in the press corps wants to have the same line in the next day’s paper as the next guy. On those trips, you’re served up so much that is uniform – the same players at press conferences, the same five-and-a-half minutes of snatched quotes from Trap or Marco Tardelli – that you’re only dying to come up with something different. The last thing you’d want in response to an FAI party line is a party line of your own. It would make the job unbearable.

Of course there comes a point in the life of every Ireland manager when the press turns on him but even then, the notion that they turn as one is flawed. Some go quicker than others – Eamon Dunphy famously got a reducer in early doors on Staunton and called for him to go even before Ireland had played a competitive game under him. But in general, we’re like a piece of gum being pulled from under a desk – we go gradually and in dribs and drabs and some of us even remain stuck for good. In the end, it’s the results that do the damage. Always has been, always will.

No “senior FAI source” would be saying a word this week or any week if the results hadn’t been so calamitous over the past few months. If whoever it was that did the leaking was hoping to send Trap into a rage at not having the association’s full backing – thereby causing him to resign in a temper and walk away from a big pay-off – well, their plan backfired. Not only did Trap rise above it all with a grace and dignity that made them look pretty small-time but the FAI got back down and dirty again along the way. As one former FAI official remarked yesterday: “It was noticeable this week that ‘the source’ came back”.

That official didn’t want to be named in this piece as he had signed a confidentiality agreement upon leaving the FAI. Another former member of their media team didn’t get back to The Irish Times. The current press office wasn’t available to answer any questions either. Whatever else you want to say about the FAI, they generally give very little away these days and they guard their patch with extreme prejudice.

RTÉ found that much out on Thursday when they were forced into three separate apologies for a piece on Morning Ireland. The FAI got in contact with RTÉ Sport before the morning was out and they ran spoken apologies at 5.30 that evening and 8.30 yesterday morning, as well as posting a written one on their website.

“On our Morning Ireland sports bulletin just after 8.30 this morning, we featured a piece between Darren Frehill and our soccer correspondent Tony O’Donoghue in which we stated that it was generally believed that mixed messages had been given to the media about the future of the senior manager’s position, that the chief executive of the FAI, John Delaney, was the senior FAI source responsible for those rumours. RTÉ and Tony O’Donoghue would like to unreservedly apologise to the CEO John Delaney for these statements which were made on our programme which were untrue. We would also like to apologise for the general tone of that particular exchange.”

On Thursday night, TV3 were forced to do the same, having run with the same story during their sports bulletin earlier in the day. They also posted the apology on their website.

The FAI moved swiftly and ruthlessly to extract those apologies, in a manner that was entirely in keeping with the professional way they run their media operations these days. All of which made the way the week began so strange. In a shiny new world, the briefing against Trap was weirdly old school.

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