What to do with the FAI? ‘Raze it to the ground and start again’

The newly-branded, full-reformed FAI moves at a glacial pace and is set to be without both a men’s manager and a CEO

A “structured search” for the next Football Association of Ireland chief executive has begun. It will take at least six months to replace Jonathan Hill. Probably nine months. Maybe longer. The newly-branded, fully-reformed FAI moves at a glacial pace.

After Marc Canham’s “existing contractual obligations” comment stalled the reveal of an Ireland manager until “early April,” and that statement proved wholly false, it’s hard to take pronouncements from Abbotstown at face value anymore.

Following the departure of Hill last Monday, there is a leadership vacuum across several departments. David Courell’s promotion to interim CEO means there is no chief operating officer. Nor is there a head of communications and marketing.

John O’Shea is contemplating a return as interim Ireland men’s manager for June friendlies against Hungary and Portugal, but what happens thereafter is anybody’s guess.


This begs the question: does Irish football need a debt-specialist-CEO to manage the €50.9 million arrears or someone steeped in politics and football, like Oscar Traynor reborn?

“Everybody is paddling their own canoe,” says Tommy Higgins, the Sligo Rovers chairperson. “The league is flying but the CEO needs to be sorted out as soon as possible, but it’s the debt that is killing them.”

There is plenty of chatter around the inner workings of the FAI. Former Bohemians president John O’Connor tweeted about the CEO “shortlist” this week: “Not sure people appreciate the scale of the challenge.” Plenty of gallows humour tumbled into his replies.

“Imagine letting Michael O’Leary loose in Abbotstown for three years??”

“Give it John Delaney ‘til end of quarter.”

“Sure, like RTÉ, the state will bail them out.”

They already have – €30 million in 2020.

Revisiting former candidates has become a popular pursuit as reports of Lee Carsley, Anthony Barry and Chris Hughton being asked to reconsider their rejection of the Ireland manager’s role in surfaced in recent weeks.

Sarah Keane and John Feehan were apparently Hill’s main rivals four years ago. Keane, the CEO of Swim Ireland, replaced Pat Hickey as the Olympic Federation of Ireland president and will leave that role later this year. Feehan is the current chief of Basketball Ireland, having previously served as the Six Nations and British Lions CEO.

According to Gareth Farrelly, a former Ireland international and litigation lawyer, the current crisis dates back to the Bank of Ireland governor Patrick Kennedy recommending Roy Barrett to become FAI chairperson in 2020. Barrett, in turn, backed Hill to be the CEO.

“Is the FAI in its current form beyond recovery?” Farrelly asks, before answering his own question: “I’d raze it to the ground and start again.

“Look, if we cannot deal with the past, Irish football will never make any forward strides. It goes back to the leadership. How did Roy Barrett get named FAI chair after a conversation with the Bank of Ireland governor when 82 people applied for that position?

“I am getting calls telling me to go for FAI CEO. To be interviewed by these people? The same people who appointed Barrett and Hill?!

“Who put Tony Keohane in as the new chair?”

The General Assembly.

“Who picked him though? It’s the same people.”

“If they had of gone with someone who went for the role before Barrett was hand-picked, we could be having a very different conversation. If they sacked Stephen Kenny when it was clear he was not right for the job, we could be going to Germany this summer.

“You cannot fix a broken system without dealing with the root causes of how it was broken.”

Farrelly continues: “The media have a lot to answer for here. If someone says it is raining outside but Jonathan Hill tells you the sun is coming out, which is it? You go outside and find out. You do not publish his emailed quotes listing his own achievements as CEO. Especially when you know what really happened.

“The lack of diversity of thought in the FAI is clear for all to see now.”

Maybe the soccer version of former Leinster Rugby CEO Mick Dawson or former GAA Director General Paraic Duffy can be unearthed.

On Duffy’s watch, the GAA’s turnover doubled to more than €60 million from 2006 to 2016.

Dawson’s mantra, while creating a European dynasty, was “decide, delegate, disappear.” His connections from Davy Stockbrokers helped fund Leinster’s impressive facility on the UCD campus. Professionalism was accelerated and then maintained by a ready-made academy system in the private schools.

“Look at the people behind these enormously successful Irish sporting bodies,” says Farrelly. “Jim Gavin and Stuart Lancaster were just the tip of iceberg, but they were identified and recruited by people who knew precisely what was needed to become leading entities in their sports.

“What does elite sport look like now?” he asks and answers: “Leinster and Dublin.

“The FAI do have good people in there. [League of Ireland director] Mark Scanlon is a brilliant guy, swimming against the tide all the time, trying to get work done. Stop over-promoting mediocrity, or people who do not care about Irish football.”

Larry Bass, the former Cabinteely FC chairperson, has seen up close how the FAI, and briefly RTÉ as a board member, go about their business. He repeats the Damien Duff line - fund the club academies or die wondering.

“As Cabinteely chair, I had a frightening vista of the FAI under John Delaney,” says Bass, the founder of production company ShinAwil. “That caused me to ask a lot of questions. It is really important that a sports administrator does not court the limelight.

“But the FAI needs a leader. The board is not in the building day to day, and the General Assembly is so vast that the next CEO needs to be a resident in the country.

“A healthy League of Ireland will eventually mean a healthy international team,” he adds. “The proof is in other European countries. If Iceland can provide full-time employment and create jobs in their football industry, you mean to tell me Ireland can’t do the same with its biggest participation sport?”

This requires government funding. The €517 million over 15 years that FAI have asked for will suffice.

“The Government needs to take football seriously simply because it can create jobs,” says Bass. “That requires Government investment, FAI investment, Uefa investment and if that happens private enterprise will come in as soon as they see an industry being built.”

Farrelly has seen history repeat itself too many times, repeating his long-held belief: “Raze it to the ground and start again.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent