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Delaney’s shrewd stroke still leaves questions for the FAI

Perennial struggles of domestic game a major blot on chief executive’s record

It’s December and the city postal service will be under stress but even so, the Oireachtas committee’s letter of invitation to John Delaney and other guys at the FAI probably reached the association’s headquarters on Friday morning. It should give them a chuckle.

The committee for Transport, Tourism and Sport has invited the lads in to talk about issues such as Mr Delaney’s salary, the exorbitant contract and expensive buy-out of former manager Martin O’Neill and to also maybe chew the fat about the state of the League of Ireland.

Delaney isn’t obligated to show up but might just decide to go along, just for the fun.

Because, even as the good people down at the Oireachtas were threatening to haul him over the coals by asking the really tough questions, the actual minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, gave the FAI chief a glowing endorsement on national radio on Friday morning.


Ross’s praise felt like the completion of a remarkable feat of escapology by Delaney.

“An old trick well done is better than a new trick with no effect,” noted Harry Houdini in his days of escaping from chained mail sacks and tanks of water. And there’s nothing new under the sun.

In the last days of the O’Neill era, Irish football was in a bleak place. Ireland’s game against Northern Ireland in the Aviva had been a ghostly inversion of the seething, all-important cross-border derbies of the early 1990s.

Attendances were falling and those who kept coming were voicing their frustration. There was increasing scrutiny of the FAI and on Delaney, figurehead of the association since 2003. Even before the grim 0-0 draw in Aarhus against Denmark, the curtain closer of the O’Neill-Keane era, the FAI board had decided: enough.

O’Neill learned of his fate on Tuesday morning: one day later, it was the talk of the country. Within hours, conversation turned to likely successors. The shortlist was quickly reduced to just two names: Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny. It felt like a clean choice between an old hand of the English football scene or one of the brightest and energetic forces to emerge from the League of Ireland.

Would the FAI be brave enough to publicly show its faith in domestic Irish football by giving the top job to one of its own? ‘No’, was immediate answer.

It emerged that McCarthy was the FAI’s man. It was a strange moment because McCarthy, with his no-nonsense Barnsley drawl is so strongly associated with previous eras of Irish football – first as Charlton’s sturdy, greying central defensive lynchpin, then as Keane’s nemesis in Saipan – that it felt like being in a time warp. Roy gone; Mick back; the dates may change but the cast remains the same.

Closing weeks

But it was in the hours after that when John Delaney made children of everyone. The absolute rule was that this must be a choice between McCarthy or Kenny; between England and Ireland, between old and new, between home or away.

When the FAI then announced that Kenny would also be Ireland manager, but on a staggered basis, taking over when Big Mick stepped down after the Euro 2020 campaign, the nation was, for once, speechless. There was nothing really to say other than a whispered exclamation, half flabbergasted and half-admiring: Jaysus.

In the closing weeks of the O’Neill era, Delaney was little seen and seldom heard. But, on Sunday, there he was on the podium alongside McCarthy, smiling, proclaiming another great day for the FAI, breezily pointing to transparency over his salary (unlike others, he inferred, that he was far too gentlemanly to mention) and secure in the knowledge that he had taken the wind out of everyone’s sails with this latest trick.

Nobody saw it coming. It was the ultimate Irish solution to an Irish problem. It was bananas. It was exciting. It led to a million questions. How would this work? What if Mick doesn’t want to go?

Best of all, it led to the considered opinion that the only way the plan could go wrong is if Ireland did really, really well or, you know, went and somehow won Euro 2020. In terms of a smooth managerial handover, that would be a complete disaster. Yes, if Ireland won the 2020 European championships, John Delaney would have to go!

Fat chance. At that moment, Delaney never looked more unassailable or untouchable.

Then, on Friday, Minister Ross went live on air with Jonathan Healy of Newstalk. Whenever the Rosser does a live show, it’s impossible not to imagine his poor department staff, on their knees and whispering: ‘Come on Gaffer. You can do it. Don’t screw up. Just get the names right.’

And even if the Minister, reviewing the high points of Irish football under O’Neill, momentarily gave us the intoxicating image of Shay Given scoring “that fantastic goal against Germany”, it went okay.

But when he was asked about Delaney and the League of Ireland, Ross was evangelical, revealing that he himself was an enthusiastic L.O.I man and often met happy fans pleased with the FAI while Delaney was always to be found doing work “on the ground”.

Going swimmingly

It conjured rosy images of Ireland’s minister for sport enjoying a punnet of chips with the crowd as he watched the FAI’s main man scooting around the pitch to make sure the corner flags were just-so.

The salary paid by the FAI to Delaney was, he acknowledged, a lot of money but: “I am comfortable that none of the State money goes to that”.

Furthermore, tomorrow’s Euro 2020 draw in the Convention Centre offered vivid proof of what the FAI and Delaney does well. By the time the Rosser moved on to talk about transport, the Oireachtas committee members must have been wishing they’d never bothered sending that letter. The Minister had already given an answer: everything is going swimmingly in Irish football.

John Delaney is a shrewd operator; the events of the past seven days were a vivid example of a born survivor at his most nimble-minded. FAI international managerial appointments have been imaginative and predominantly successful under his watch. This appointment may work brilliantly over the next five years – nobody knows.

But it doesn’t mean there aren’t questions for Delaney and the FAI to answer, for themselves if not the Oireachtas.

On Tuesday evening, Niall Quinn was on Virgin Media. You forget how plausible and articulate Big Niall can be when you haven’t seen him for a while. And he offered a vision of the League of Ireland as it might become: backed by serious investment, run independently of the FAI, commercially marketed and promoted and offering a proper pathway and career for young Irish players.

It was an aspiration. But it was exciting. Big Niall was asked if he’d consider a role in helping to set up that kind of model for domestic football.

“For the league, but not for the FAI.”

What if that could be done? What if there’s the energy and know-how out there to – one day – transform the league into a thriving local sports and business rather than an entity that is always fighting to be seen and heard and just to survive?

Maybe that’s a chat that the Minister might have with the FAI chief when they next bump into each other at half-time at Shels or St Pat’s next season.