The footage was grainy, but there’s no doubting who it was – John Delaney, head of the Football Association of Ireland, in front of a crowd in a darkly lit bar singing into a microphone. His choice was Joe McDonnell by The Wolfe Tones, a famous Irish rebel song. In typical fashion it was vehemently denied and managed to further endear him to a vast swathe of Ireland’s football fans.
This blatant disregard of professional etiquette was only made worse by the fact that merely hours after denying it, and threatening any potential publishers with legal repercussions, he issued an apology. To make it more unbelievable, it was sung on the same night as the English Football Association were forced to apologise on behalf of the English supporters’ band for singing ‘Fuck the IRA’ at a game against Scotland.
Alike many other men in high power jobs, Delaney carries an air of delusion, as if the world that we live in is not quite his, but one he likes to visit every now and then. When he does, it’s usually in front of a camera, whether on a primetime Irish chat show or a drunken fan’s mobile phone.
An accountant by trade, he was appointed to a position in the Football Association of Ireland through his father’s nepotism, not uncommon in Irish politics. He set upon the same path as Joe Delaney by becoming the FAI’s youngest treasurer at 34. The younger Delaney gained early exposure through keen Machiavellian opportunism by self-christening himself the spokesperson of a crisis that unfolded in front of the media the year after his appointment.
The Saipan Saga of 2002 was the opportunity for John Delaney the treasurer to become the John Delaney who has come to symbolise Irish football’s troubling times.
The Irish national team were in Japan preparing for their games at the 2002 World Cup and captain Roy Keane took issue with the treatment of players and the team’s preparation. While the squad was languishing in the second class seating of the plane, the FAI officials enjoyed first class. To Keane, things just got worse.
The captain felt that the whole thing seemed thrown together. The diet wasn’t right, the strategy was all wrong and his known feud with manager Mick McCarthy was exacerbated under the increasing pressure of a World Cup campaign. This drove Keane into giving an interview without McCarthy’s consent, voicing his concerns about the national team in his typical manner, devoid of any airs or graces. The incident blew up. An argument about the article between captain and manager ended up in Keane being sent home, making the Irish campaign look farcical. They needed some good PR.
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Delaney went from treasurer to a whirlwind impromptu role as Saipan Saga public relations, taking much of the heat from the press in the fallout of the incident. He handled the fracas in his stride with a charisma that was both empathetic to all parties involved and stern enough to convey a stable authoritative figure.
Two years later Delaney took over as the chief executive of the FAI and from the get go, his life became a spectacle that read like a convoluted celebrity scandal involving money, sex and power.
In person, John Delaney comes across as a charitable and proud football lover. Domestic football in Ireland has never enjoyed as high a profile as it currently is, especially considering the recent success of Dundalk in Europe. Their success has generated a new interest in Irish football, shining an international spotlight on Delaney. It might look like this is a new opportunity for football in Ireland to reach uncharted levels of growth, but the relationship between the League of Ireland and John Delaney has always been strained.
In 2014, on Irish radio, he infamously likened the league to a “difficult child” – an assessment that has some merit if you aren’t the person in charge. The league, like many other lower level leagues, was essentially no more than a trampoline for a select few players to make the leap over to England. Those that don’t have the quality are left in a league that feels miraculous if the same teams that start the season all make it to the end.
Stable future growth hinges on a strong foundation that comes from more than just financial investment, but through a long-term strategy that fosters a culture of success, pride and passion – arguably the most powerful tools management in football can utilise. Cultivating this mentality starts from the bottom up.
Ireland has never had a youth system, so the FAI are finally beginning to lay the groundwork to roll out a domestic under-17 and under-15 league, with the goal of keeping talent in the country, at least for longer than they have been able to in the past.
Small clubs currently compete in county leagues and in general don’t produce players of the necessary level required to influence the country’s domestic and international football. These small clubs are also regular recipients of Delaney’s money, something that has gained him a legion of loyal youth team coaches that are all a part of the FAI to varying degrees.
But at the risk of shaking this infrastructure up, the necessity of a youth league can’t be overlooked anymore. Ireland had the oldest national squad at Euro 2016 and have struggled to find promising young players for a long time. This, however, looks set to change it all.
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Despite these changes, the ‘difficult child’ remark stuck, partly for what he said, but more so for how he said it. Ireland is a religious country and the traditional values of being humble and modest are woven into the fabric of their society, especially in sports. Apparently, Delaney has a different idea.
He appeared on chat shows with his glamorous wife and even had a short documentary dedicated to him called John The Baptist, in honour of him being the saviour of Irish football. It turned out like a conceited piece of pro-Delaney propaganda. Irish football fans began to choke on this image that they were being force-fed. If the league is such a difficult child, then what kind of parent does that make him?
Hitherto Delaney had managed to swerve the full ire of the Irish for his dodgy dealings and carefully curated media-friendly image, but now they were beginning to look closer – they wanted answers. The main point of contention with John Delaney is money. Of that broad subject, the most contentious issue is his wage, which is €360,000 per year for the FAI chief executive job and nearly another €100,000 for his role at UEFA. That’s not only more than the head’s of both the Italian and Spanish football associations combined, but more than the President of the United States.
To compound the mistrust that the Irish people felt towards Delaney, there were more deals and actions involving him that began to fall like a house of cards. Throughout them all though, his mix of likeability and seeming aloofness managed to see him through to the other side. Two of the scandals that caused the biggest outrage involved a case of high-end ticket touting and a missing €5 million ‘bribe’.
In 2016, Delaney thought it was his time to really follow in his father’s footsteps. It’s not just the job that Delaney inherited from his dad, but also his knack for creating a good headline. In what sounds like a badly written script for a Guy Ritchie film, Delaney Sr. was involved with ticket tout ‘George the Greek’ during the 1990 and 1994 Olympics, buying non-Ireland tickets and trading them up for the lower valued Ireland ones.
As vice-president of the Olympic Committee, Delaney and the other board members had a surplus of tickets available that Brazilian police thought were being sold on for profit. While the official investigation cleared his name, during the process Delaney pursued a thunderous campaign of retribution against the media outlets that had reported the story and implied his guilt. Despite the acquittal, fans had their doubts about the investigation and the swift end to the fallout, once again the accusations of corruption were rife.
After Thierry Henry’s infamous handball for France in 2009 stole his side – at the expense of Ireland – a place at the World Cup in South Africa, the FAI were initially so infuriated by this blatant error of judgement and footballing trickery that they swore vengeance. Then all of a sudden, it was out of the back pages.
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For years the FAI were silent on the incident, only for it to resurface in 2015 with an unwelcome twist. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter had paid the FAI €5 million in hush money. Essentially, it was an out of court settlement to stop the crusading John Delaney from legal proceedings. This money had never been officially declared and was masked by the FAI’s accountancy to seemingly disappear. The transformation of John Delaney to Don Delaney over recent years has clearly made the Irish football fans edgy.
In May 2017 the league was rocked again, involving one of the most serious crimes of football – match-fixing. It’s imperative that in a league that has seen clubs sink over €20,000 that investors are vetted properly to assess their risks. Last August, Irish journalist and former Cork City chairman John O’Sullivan was approached by an agent working for a Chinese client to provide some information and give his opinion on which club to invest money in. O’Sullivan recommended the First Division’s Waterford FC, but the investor decided to sink his money into Athlone Town.
In March 2017, over €400,000 worth of bets were placed on an over 3.5 goal match against Longford Town. Accusations of match-fixing began to fly in and Athlone Town are currently under investigation by both the FAI and the Irish police after the irregular betting patterns were given credence by the very questionable late goal that made the game finish with a 3-1 scoreline.
This club has a 130-year history that will forever have a stain on it that might have been prevented with a simple background check. Unfortunately, the FAI’s ineptitude has meant that a small club – the lynchpin of their town – might be gone for good.
Even though the League of Ireland is enjoying what are probably its finest years, it still lacks the care and infrastructure required to take it the next step of the way. The low attendances and precarious financial status of teams in the league has made them seem like perpetually being a couple of bad decisions from going out of business.
Football in Ireland has an image problem. Thanks to the proximity of the country to England and the gulf in quality of football, fans have flocked over in droves since time immemorial to watch their beloved sport. It’s only been a hardcore group of fans that have followed the LOI, against the strong tide. Fans of the national sport, Gaelic Football, think the football fans suffer from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
This nationalistic fanaticism means that sports fans either follow GAA or hurling – not football. With over 120,000 trips being made annually by Irish fans to watch the English Premier League, it has in effect become their national league. Those that regularly make the trip don’t understand the ones who don’t and the fans of the LOI likewise don’t understand why you wouldn’t support your local club. There is little romanticism left in the Premier League, something the idiosyncratic League of Ireland has in abundance.
The FAI is in the best position to change the trend and perception of domestic football, which begs the question, is John Delaney, arguably the embodiment of the fans disaffection, the right man to bring about the necessary change? No. But is there anyone else that looks like they could do any better? Probably not. For now at least, Delaney is the poster-boy for the old adage, ‘better the devil you know’.
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The polarising nature of his character is made all the more difficult by the veiled dealings of the FAI that feed into the fans distrust and allow conspiracy to manifest on the terraces and blogs. Separating the rumours from the truth, especially about a subject that comes with such an inherent bias of passion, makes it impossible to judge him fairly. Those who meet him love him, while those who love football in Ireland hate him. The only middle ground these two disparate parties share is that the outlook for Irish football is bleak.
It’s not that the Irish fans haven’t expressed their feelings. There are numerous Facebook groups and an increasing group of sportswriters that share the same goal, to get Delaney out. This is a stance that Delaney doesn’t take lightly. He has always been willing to act, and against this growing mutinous sentiment he has acted harshly. Regular threats of legal action are launched, targeted at anyone who writes something about him that is not proven beyond doubt. Only certain kinds of gossip seem to appeal.
Traditionally the terraces have been a politicised place for fans to air their opinions – it’s been the staple platform for working-class dissent worldwide since the first posters were raised. But when they’re raised in Ireland games, Delaney become more dictatorial in the face of these dissidents. Fans have reported being stopped numerous times by securities after holding up posters with an anti-Delaney message in previous games. It came to the public eye after Ireland’s 2-2 draw with Serbia in 2016.
Considering Ireland’s long history of oppression, it can come across as particularly short-sighted to try and quell the public’s opinion. This kind of censorship is expected in authoritarian regimes, not at a football game. After this tie, several fans came forward to describe the heavy-handed security lead by the FAI’s own team that they faced. These fans had been vetted after their vocal resistance in past games.
To get a better picture of John Delaney, he’s a ruddy-faced Irish version of the former Juventus managing director and notorious slickster Luciano Moggi. The two controversial figures hog the gossip columns, while still inspiring blind devotion from certain sections of fans. His rise to power and cult of personality in Ireland is closer to another political figure though, Donald Trump. Like Trump, he doesn’t fit the archetype and that seems to be enough to keep him in position.
While he might make back-handed deals and earn more than could ever seem justifiable, he’s still happy to go for a singalong and a beer with fans after the game. It might be shameless, but these memories give the fans something. At a crux in Irish footballing history, when the future looks to bring more of the same, these moments might bring about the only feeling of hope for fans of the sport.
The irony of it all, though, is that the root cause of this feeling of hopelessness is also the only person who can actually change it
By Edd Norval @EddNorval