Daniel McDonnell: ‘Leadership void will expose split in Irish ‘football family’ as FAI survivors fight fires
John Delaney was the dominant face of the FAI for 15 years – but the space he once occupied is now empty.
In the association’s headquarters in Abbotstown, the largest office is shut.
Behind the door, there is enough space for two personal assistants, a meeting room, a bathroom and shower, and the actual working office of the CEO.
That office hasn’t been used this week.
Interim CEO Rea Walshe is working out of a base next to the boardroom that was notionally used by Martin O’Neill on his visits. She has been a visible presence on the corridors.
Life must go on in spite of the FAI’s biggest ever crisis.
“This will take years to recover from,” says one Abbotstown source. “This isn’t an overnight job.”
With legal representatives from A&L Goodbody a fixture on-site and auditors and the ODCE getting stuck into their work, the new hierarchy have their hands full.
Their task has been complicated by staff fears about what changes might mean for their jobs and a split between grassroots factions, who are worried about life after Mr Delaney, and groups who see his departure as an opportunity to gain influence.
An episode such as Waterford’s exclusion from European competition due to licensing problems has exposed the landmines which lie ahead. That a Dublin club, St Patrick’s Athletic, will capitalise ahead of a country club will feed into the narrative.
In her old job, Ms Walshe headed the licensing department, so this is another problem which will land on her desk.
Waterford say discussions with the FAI gave them confidence about their ability to meet Uefa criteria. Mr Delaney, who has a good relationship with Blues owner Lee Power, will also be monitoring this situation.
He is now doing so from afar, and in the company of people who believe more issues could arise because of his absence.
Mr Delaney spent part of the week in Germany with the Leinster FA, a provincial association whose strongest voices remain supportive of the 51-year-old. They hold 10 seats on the FAI’s 60-person council.
A meeting of the FAI development committee on Tuesday was weighted heavily towards Mr Delaney’s backers – some of whom voiced their belief politicians have used football to distract from the Children’s Hospital controversy.
Members of that group fear dark days without the influence of the executive vice-president.
But the eight remaining members of the FAI board – who have indicated they will step down at the next general meeting – are planning for the future. Mr Delaney’s company phone has been returned and credit card blocked.
The power vacuum has been filled by President Donal Conway and Women’s FA head Niamh O’Donoghue, along with Ms Walshe. Other board members were present throughout the week, individuals who would have been considered as peripheral to FAI decisions before now.
“They’re doing now what they should always have been doing,” said one source, “but they are probably feeling themselves now that it’s a little too late.”
A governance group chaired by Aidan Horan, a director of the Institute of Public Administration, will decide the timeline of what happens next. Ms Walshe, Ms O’Donoghue and a yet to be confirmed Sport Ireland appointee will make up the quartet. They will have to construct a plan for an EGM, but before that they have to figure out the framework for constructing the type of set-up envisaged by Sport Ireland and Minister for Tourism, Transport and Sport Shane Ross.
On Tuesday, they made it clear they want a board drawn from different sectors of the game. As it stands, the board must be selected from the council – which is still heavily populated by Delaney-ites.
The FAI team acknowledges it effectively needs to convince turkeys to vote for Christmas, but the suspension of State funds and threats hanging over large-scale infrastructure projects around the country give the reformers leverage.
Efforts have also been made to engage with factions outside Mr Delaney’s traditional power base.
Letters have been exchanged this week with the Premier Clubs Association (PCA), the representative body for League of Ireland top-flight clubs, who were deeply “pessimistic” about the progress of talks with a view to setting up a new structure by 2020.
Within a day of sending a letter to Ms Walshe to outline frustrations with the slow progress of a working group that last met at the end of February, they received a response and a meeting has been scheduled for next Thursday.
Efforts have been made to reach out to the players’ union, the PFAI, which fell out spectacularly with Mr Delaney. Its role as representative of the women’s team during their threatened strike action was a central part of the tension.
Relationships had plummeted to the extent that one ex-player who applied for a role within the FAI was asked for another name when they included a PFAI staff member on their list of references.
It is not going to be easy to knit the factions together because of the water that has gone under the bridge.
Another major complication is the flagging morale among rank-and-file staff.
Development officers sought assurances this week that they would be paid at the end of the month as the regional roles are tied into State funding.
Abbotstown-based employees are frustrated they have not received any internal communication since last Tuesday week and they are relying on media reports for updates. The HR manager is currently on leave.
A high turnover of staff at executive level is a massive internal talking point, a contrast from the length of service at board level.
The FAI’s business partnerships and strategy director, Karen Campion, who was initially put forward to be part of the Dáil delegation, will be leaving the Association in the coming weeks.
“Lots of people are looking for new jobs,” said one employee, reflecting the atmosphere.
There is no guarantee any of the personalities leading the FAI through the choppy waters will be there on the other side.
In the void left by Mr Delaney, uncertainty reigns.