Gary Owens: ‘There is no agenda here other than a desire to help Irish football’

FAI’s interim chief feels he will have achieved what he was asked to do by the end of July

He could probably do without the extra item on his agenda just now but FAI interim chief executive Gary Owens will meet with the leadership of the big underage leagues on Monday to ask just why it was they decided to change the number of players in an under-12s team this week.

On the face of it, the issue amounts to what many would simply regard as a ridiculous rule change but given the underlying politics at play, the move is being widely interpreted a two-fingered salute to the association from its schoolboy sector.

The underlying issue is, as always: who really runs Irish football? Not so long ago, the answer was fairly indisputably ‘the chief executive’, but things are a little more complicated and, perhaps, controversial now.

The links between Owens, his deputy Niall Quinn and the independent chairman of the board, Roy Barrett, go back a couple of years and there is some discomfort around the game about the fact that they have appeared to come as a package.

Owens disputes this, for the most part, and insists that their intentions are good which, he is says, is the important thing. “There is no agenda here other than a desire to help Irish football. I can understand that people might have suspicions about it but I think that people have to judge us on our actions and behaviour.”

He has certainly been busy doing his best. His initial contract, due to run out at the end of next month, was for just six months but he has sought to pack an awful lot in.

He said: “I came in to do the refinance, the restructuring, to try and line up the constitutional reform. And then Covid came and so that becomes a different challenge. But I think by the end of July I will have achieved all the things that I’ve been asked to.”


That might well be regarded as a decent manifesto to secure a longer-term stay but there are those around the organisation who see him as having been damaged by recent events, most obviously a deeply critical letter from St Patrick's Athletic owner Garrett Kelleher, and the related suggestion by Dundalk's Bill Hulsizer that the FAI had passed up the opportunity to do a good bit of business with some of his associates.

“I have a lot of time for Garrett,” he says. “I just wish he would have picked up the phone, to talk about what was going on or just to have a go.

“As for Bill; basically what happened was they wanted to help us with streaming which is unknown territory for us. One of the guys who presented to us said that we could make €7 million on streaming and another said that we’d make €200,000 or €300,000 on streaming. So, we weren’t sure but I was very keen to try and learn because I think it could help us crystallise what value we get for the league in future years and potentially help with playing behind closed doors.

“They made an offer to buy the rights but then said they needed security. We’ve already done a financial deal [with Bank of Ireland] though, so we don’t have any assets around that aren’t already encumbered. When I told them that, it went nowhere. I mean, if they had been offering us free money with no strings attached, we’d have taken it.”

The bigger issue with the clubs, prominent in Kelleher’s letter but widely mentioned by others both publicly and privately, was a sense that both Owens and Quinn, especially the latter given the more public nature of his role, had raised expectations with excessively optimistic estimations about the support which might be available from government, or the timeframe in which it might arrive.

Owens is adamant that the charge is unjustified. “We never ever said that we would deliver more than we have on the table now,” he maintains. “And I think we worked with the clubs every week, so they all knew exactly where we stood.”

That’s not at all a universally-held view although most give the pair a lot of credit for having clearly worked very hard to put together the sort of package required, and even the more critical clubs will be happier now the process looks to be approaching its final stages.

Worst-case scenario

Much remains to be done, though, and there are spin-off issues like how the underage leagues are going to be run when the money for them has been diverted into restarting the senior game. “We will need to find the money somewhere to do that,” he says. “But I think the chances of us not having enough income to be able to deal with that are reducing with time.”

The reason for that, of course, is the easing of restrictions related to coronavirus. The association’s summer camps are a significant earner and international matches in the autumn, even with limited attendances, mean income from ticket sales and sponsorship. Last month, Owens predicted the crisis would cost the association €10 million and though that remains the worst-case scenario, it could now be €6 million, he reckons.

None of it, he says, will impact on the staff restructuring announced this week. The association guaranteed the Government that low- to middle-income jobs would be protected and though some of those higher up the tree seem likely to leave, Owens insists that despite the virus-related losses, the process is not driven by the need to meet a financial target.

A key battleground is set to be the composition of the new board and whether, specifically, six of 12 members are independents

“We don’t need to do a lot of work in terms of saving costs, we are actually restructuring to drive the association forward in a positive way, rather than aiming to get rid of people.”

The other restructuring in progress has been causing disquiet among the volunteers. Almost a year to the day after the FAI published its governance review group's recommendations, and then president Donal Conway announced that there could "no plan B", Owens and Co are currently putting the finishing touches to one.

The 78 recommendations delivered by Aidan Horan and his committee have not, he insists, been jettisoned; rather they have become 166, with the memorandum of understanding signed with Government and, interestingly, the Kosi report having added the rest.

Kosi was briefly seen by a handful of people then sent to the gardaí and its fate remains uncertain. It has still been, Owens claims, a gamechanger. “It showed how bad the financial situation was and,” he adds, ominously, “what had gone on in the past.” When or if it will be published remains unknown but it has since fed into a new phase of the governance review process that many feel has followed far too swiftly on from the initial report.

Criticism has come from very different camps. Nixon Morton's letter to Uefa and Fifa highlighted the concerns of those commonly regarded as "the old guard", while Shelbourne's Andrew Doyle and Cabinteely's Larry Bass have contended that the new regime has ignored some of the association's rules when it has suited them, specifically by failing to establish a working finance committee.

Key battleground

Owens defends the actions of a board he says has worked well on a number of fronts and claims Fifa actually raised concerns about aspects of the committee structure. A new and improved one, he says, will soon be put before the membership.

A key battleground is set to be the composition of the new board and whether, specifically, six of 12 members are independents – one of whom has the casting vote. When it is put to him that that notion seems to have been first floated by Quinn rather than Minister for Sport Shane Ross, he says it is the first time he has heard that suggested and insists that it did not, in any case, come from him.

Even after the advert has appeared in the paper, he claims that he has not made up his mind whether to apply for the job on a permanent basis but acknowledges that “everyone expects me to”. Not everyone is completely convinced he would get it although Barrett’s support, which is seen as important, is very widely taken for granted.

Most accept he has found himself in a tough job at what has proven to be an unexpectedly tough time and learned about navigating a complicated landscape as he went along, although they also feel he might have done better if he had asked for a few directions along the way.

When he says of the schoolboy sector’s simmering animosity towards the League of Ireland, “there has to be something in it for everyone”, it still smacks slightly of the newcomer.

He is right, of course, but the enduring problem at the FAI is that there is never nearly enough to go around and nobody was going to sort that out in six months.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times