Myth of Delaney the master administrator dies with his silence
Projection of power was former FAI chief’s greatest trick – that has disappeared
Former FAI chief executive John Delaney chose to operate as a classical Irish politician. File photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times
Somewhere, deep beneath the surface of the ongoing Football Association of Ireland fiasco, with the cheques, the bank accounts, the laughable Oireachtas television show, the buzz words such as “corporate governance” and the poor children of Ireland now starved of Sports Ireland funding, exists the matter of dignity.
The essence of Irish life is when a public figure chooses to demean the position he holds on national television but still walks away a winner. The bastards couldn’t lay a finger on you, John. But the real tragedy for and of John Delaney, irrespective of how the future months and years pan out, is that it has become clear that had he just had the fearlessness to go with his undoubted gift for sports politics, he might have touched brilliance; he might have walked away as the man who truly revitalised and reimagined Irish football. He could have been a contender.
Instead, he sat before the Oireachtas and opted to use legal advice as a shield. So, after reading a brief statement which explained precisely nothing, he sat in silence for hours as the politicians lined up to express their outrage. And in doing so, Delaney consigned himself to the long, dreary list of men and women in Irish public life who have ably played the game of evasion.
There were times when it was all Delaney could do to stifle his yawns with the rest of the nation. He knows the song: you’ll never beat the Irish. He lives in Ireland, the country where nobody of influence and nobody in public office is held to account for anything, ever.
By saying nothing, Delaney made the office of the FAI look secretive, shambolic, inept and most damningly of all, he made it look small
There was and remains obfuscation over whether Delaney even has anything to be held to account for. The general attitude of the interrogators was: “we don’t like what you’ve done, here, even if we’re not fully sure what it is.” The performance of Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae was generally regarded as the low/high point of the proceedings, with his emphatic praise for Delaney depicted as disgraceful. Fellow TD Ruth Coppinger, with disgust that was evidently genuine, labelled her colleague “a joke”.
If Healy-Rae was upset by that, he had recovered by the time he popped up on Virgin TV’s The Tonight Show that evening. As ever, he wore his flat cap, the ingenious trademark appropriated from his father designed to symbolise his separateness from the political and media classes through whose circles he reluctantly moves for the benefit of his constituents.
The Tonight Show became a case in point. The show is co-presented by Matt Cooper, a formidable journalist and Ivan Yates, who has effortlessly filled the breeches of George Hook as bombastic patriarch who calls it as he sees it. The problem for Yates is that there are millions in Ireland who still identify with him as a former politician; a minister, no-less, who can live high on the hog with a handsome ministerial pension; also as a former businessman who ran a chain of bookmakers before declaring bankruptcy and disappearing for a while only to reinvent himself as a radio and television voice of hard-won wisdom with a keen nose for BS.
It’s hard for viewers not to conclude that Yates belongs to that in-the-know circle for who things will work out. If there is a vague suspicion in provincial Ireland that media/political circles are a little too cosy, then Yates is the living embodiment of that. On Wednesday, Ivan switched effortlessly into Dáil chamber mode, leaning across the desk to call out the implacable Healy-Rae’s “craven leprechaun performance”.
The Kerry man returned the character assassination by calling the host a “bully” and a “thug”. It was ratings gold and utterly futile: a pathetic show of Alpha-ism. What Yates doesn’t – or possibly does – understand is that Healy-Rae regards him as meat to be eaten without salt. Those venomous attacks just harden the sense among Healy-Rae’s followers of a Dublin media having it in for one of their own. And it redoubles their intention to return him as number one next time out.
Predictably, the exchange overshadowed the interesting contributions from Sinéad O’Carroll of The Journal and Niall Quinn, the former Republic of Ireland player and Sunderland chairman. Quinn has been one of the more prominent voices on the best way forward for football in Ireland.
The most interesting revelation of the entire day was when he recalled his time sitting on the Sports Council, which preceded Sport Ireland, and watching in increasing frustration as the IRFU and GAA, after making polished presentations, walked away with about €3 million in grant money while the FAI showed up and basically held its hat out: they were given €750,000.
“There was no real push to say this is what we are doing, we are going to really deserve this money. And I hope John Delaney would admit that I helped him at that time to start upping their ideas about how they could go and attain funding. I am sorry I did that now because when I see what it has turned into. You say I am obsessed with Sunderland: I am obsessed with bringing good things I saw that could be in place in this country if we had a vision. Irish football needs to do things: it needs to have a fabulous vision for the future and . . .”
At this stage, Yates interrupted to return to his row with Healy-Rae and Quinn’s voice was drowned out. It was back on safe, familiar territory: show-time moral outrage from the TV man and the country TD fiercely defending his patch; his man.
When Delaney took over as chief executive of the FAI, he clearly figured that operating as a classical Irish politician was the smartest way to go. He made himself a sort of minister of all the football constituencies, bestowing gifts and amenities and earned, in return, the unstinting loyalty of his executive members and of guys such as Healy-Rae whose concerns begin and end with the reach of their electoral constituents.
Politicians such as Healy-Rae genuinely see nothing wrong in that. This is how their understanding of Ireland works, an island made up of hundreds of independent entities all hustling for their own little patch. And maybe, operating in the era of 2005-2019, adapting that way of operating was the shrewdest thing for Delaney to do.
But the magnificent, indifferent silence he maintained in the Oireachtas had the inadvertent purpose of stripping away the illusion he created of being somehow special – the administrator as late-night crooner, as brilliant Uefa courtier, as the people’s guy. By saying nothing, he made the office of the FAI look secretive, shambolic, inept and most damningly of all, he made it look small. Projection of power was Delaney’s greatest trick. That disappeared on Wednesday.
The politicians may – as ever – be powerless to do anything. But the FAI’s main sponsors, who provide the real money, have begun to express their concern now. You don’t want to be lumbered with an association that looks ridiculous; with a crowd has lost all dignity. If they feel the face doesn’t fit anymore, then it’s full-time.