FAI making some progress but its board still an old boys’ club

Niamh O’Donoghue will break new ground when she joins football’s governing body

The Irish Times / Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the year Awards take place this Friday December 16th honouring the great sporting achievements by Irish sportswomen over the last 12 months. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

While the FAI has apparently modelled its new coaching structures on established practice in Belgium, it seems a key aspect of the association’s corporate governance bears a striking resemblance to that of the English game’s with “elderly white men” firmly in control.

To be fair, England’s problem on this front may be worse than Ireland’s.

Little is known of the 25 life presidents on the FA’s Council who David Davies, Greg Dyke, Alex Horne, David Triesman and David Bernstein refer to in the term above in their letter to Damian Collins MP, the chair of Britain’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

However, given that the average age of the five signatories is 65 (the other four must be thankful for the involvement of 44 year-old Alex Horne), it seems safe to assume the worst.

Here, as it happens, the average of the FAI’s board is also 65 although four members are over 70 and two, both 77, are only still there because when the rules were changed last time they were up for re-election in order to allow them to stand again.

The current nine (as listed in various FAI publications and excluding the recently deceased former president, Milo Corcoran) are all men although Niamh O’Donoghue is due to join under the terms of a merger agreement with the WFAI.

She and Frances Smith are also the only two women listed as members of the organisation’s 55-strong council while a further 25 honorary members of one type or another are all men.

In England, much is made of the fact that only six of the FA Council’s 123 members are women but in percentage terms, it seems, they are still ahead of here.

Additional resources

In her programme notes for the women’s cup final, O’Donoghue says it is “an exciting time to be part of women’s football in Ireland,” and certainly there have been some positive developments with additional resources having been invested in developing the game and growing numbers.

The level of growth achieved has been significant but the association is starting from a remarkably low base and in its recent five-year strategic plan suggests that its target of a 10 per cent annual improvement in participation levels between now and 2020 will produce a total number of just 26,000 regular female participants, still a fraction of the equivalent figure for men.     

Still, the appointment of coaches and a new director of women’s football along with a clear attempt to put the various women’s national teams on at least something more like an equal footing with their male equivalents, suggests progress.  

Some individual programmes, like the “Soccer Sisters” initiative which aims to encourage girls to take up the game, have been impressive and several of the underage international teams have achieved remarkable levels of tournament success.

But the senior side has continued to struggle, in part perhaps, because the league here is weak and the men’s model of exporting the best players to England generates less of a return when the club game there is so far behind the likes of Germany, France and the Nordic countries.

Still, where the FAI’s statement that: “The promotion of women in football, whether that be participation, administration or volunteerism, is essential and central to the work of the FAI,” most obviously falls down is at senior administrative level, a situation that has not, despite the association’s company secretary, head of legal and club licensing and HR manager all being female, been helped by the departures of former deputy CEO Sarah O’Shea and, only yesterday, sponsorship, marketing & events manager, Siobhán Keane.

It is at board level, though, that things are grimmest.

Key proposal

The situation might have been more easily addressed had the recommendation in the Genesis report that two non-executive directors from outside football be appointed been adopted.

But despite having suggested at the time that he welcomed the idea, John Delaney has never shown any enthusiasm for implementing what many saw as an absolutely key proposal.

The authors of Genesis made the mistake of presuming that the days of key posts being allocated on the basis that it was “someone’s turn” were over but that is essentially the basis on which a couple of board members got their seats at the table.

They also suggested term limits for directors which, like lower age limits, would produce a higher turnover and more opportunities for different demographics and people with outside expertise to be represented at the organisation’s key decision-making level.

The term limits are also recommended in the voluntary governance code that Sport Ireland endorses for adoption by national associations while Uefa still use the age limits that the FAI proposed more than two decades ago but which it has since raised to allow two of its officers extend their stay.

Delaney, as it happens, is actually the board’s longest-serving member at 15 years but the average stint is 10 years and rising and, O’Donoghue’s appointment notwithstanding, there is little really to suggest that without the sort of governmental pressure now being suggested by Minister of State for Sport Patrick O’Donovan the upper echelons of the association will look any less like an old boys’ club in a decade from now.

Although the boys, of course, might well be a decade older.

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