FAI competitions director Fran Gavin says that staff at the association have been left "rattled" by events around the organisation over the past month or so. But he insists that he remains "proud" to work for the Irish game's governing body, for all its many current issues.
“I think there’s a lot of good work being done in the FAI that seems to be overshadowed by what’s going on,” he said at an event in Malahide to mark the official launch of the Unite the Union Champions Cup.
“I know a lot of the staff continue to do that work. I know my own staff are doing it. That work has to be done to keep Irish football going and they do a really, really good job. That’s gone unnoticed a bit because the attention has gone elsewhere. The sooner we get back to that, the dust settles on everything and we have a new structure in . . .
“I mean, I’m still proud to be working for the FAI,” he continued. “Absolutely. And always will be. But all the staff that I talk to at the moment are a bit, I suppose, rattled with what’s happened over the last while. You’ve got to take into consideration that FAI has been a steady ship for a long time and suddenly the ship has been rocked. So people in any business would be concerned.
“I know the board are working hard, though, with the governance group, to try and sort out all those things.”
The Champions Cup is a certainly a rare positive for the association just now, with trade union Unite putting in €100,000 a year for three years. Three-quarters of that will be divided between the winners and losers (€50,000 to the former) of the two-legged affair between the two league-winning sides. The rest will go to community events and initiatives around the games. The games are a joint initiative between the FAI and the Irish Football Association (IFA) in Northern Ireland.
The first leg will take place at Windsor Park in Belfast on Friday November 8th, with the second on Monday November 11th. RTÉ has committed to televising the game hosted by the League of Ireland champions, and it is hoped that the BBC will broadcast the other.
This is an opportunity to reach out across communities and borders and to use a medium that is loved: football
“It’s a great initiative,” said Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, who was in Dublin for the union’s Irish conference, at which the competition was launched. “It’s an opportunity to bring communities together. We are very much into that, trying to demonstrate that communities north and south of the border, Protestants and Catholics, have so much in common.
“With what’s happening at the moment with Brexit and the dangers of the Good Friday Agreement being lost, or broken or damaged . . . this is an opportunity to reach out across communities and borders and to use a medium that is loved: football, this wonderful, wonderful sport that we all adore,” he said.
“And so we were delighted that the FAI and the IFA shared our commitment, and are committed that when these games take place there will be community events. We want to ensure that young people are brought into what we are trying to do, so there will be a whole range of community events. That all gels perfectly with the ethos of Unite . . . of what we are all about.”
Linfield general manager Pat Fenlon said the competition was a very welcome initiative, with Unite's funding enough in and of itself to make the entire venture worthwhile. But, he suggested, the two associations should be looking at bolstering the prize fund so as to incentivise the clubs and add to the prestige of the games.
“I think the idea is very good,” he said. “Anything that is going to enhance the game has to be welcomed. But I think there could be a contribution from the two associations. It’s basically an all-Ireland cup. If we can’t sell that to the TV companies then we’re in trouble.”
We work with organisations, not individuals. We're confident that between us we can put together a compelling bid
The dates of the games, which he heard about for the first time when a Unite official mentioned them at the unveiling of the trophy in the main conference room, will pose a challenge for a club that will be in the thick of defending its title. Linfield should have an Irish League game on the Saturday between the two games but, says Fenlon, “there’s no easy way with these things and once there is consultation and it is done right, we will find a way. I’m sure there will be consultations as to how to accommodate Linfield in that regard.”
IFA chief eexecutive Patrick Nelson, meanwhile, said that plans for the joint bid to stage the European Under-21 championships in 2023 would not be affected by the current crisis at the FAI or by John Delaney’s likely departure from the association.
“We work with organisations, not individuals,” he said at the launch. “We’re confident that between us we can put together a compelling bid that brings lots of benefits to the island of Ireland.”
Nelson also confirmed that talks are ongoing about a shift in the Irish League season in order to help its clubs compete in Europe. The competition is currently on course to lose one of its Europa League places due to the poor results achieved by its clubs in recent years.
A change that allowed clubs to have played a signification number of league games before the qualifiers started would help, Nelson suggested.
It could also, of course, enhance the prospects of a more substantial, cross-border competition in the future. The Champions Cup, welcome as it is, may yet prove to be the start of something much more significant.