Delaney saved for now by the Trapattoni rabbit
John Delaney's head was demanded by the soccer public in the wake of the Steve Staunton debacle. He managed to buy time by seeming to stand aside as CEO from the most significant appointment by the organisation he manages and Trapattoni, for now at least, quells dissent. But if that goes wrong…
BY ADAM MAGUIRE
Just at the moment when, at least, the FAI was to win public approval at last for the ingenious appointment of the Italian football genius, Giovanni Trapattoni as Ireland's new football manager, it was embroiled in yet another controversy over a curious bequest made to the Association. John Delaney, the FAI CEO juggled with two further issues and made a mess of both: whether the bequest from Denis O'Brien allowed the FAI to “raise the bar”, as he first said, or whether the FAI itself was capable to raising its own bar, as he later claimed; and then whether the Denis O'Brien offer preceded the dismissal of Steve Staunton as manager, as Denis O'Brien claimed or succeeded it, as the FAI “clarified”. John Delaney again was centre stage, having promised to vacate the centre stage after the debacle arising from the Steve Staunton appointment, for which he was primarily responsible.
But John Delaney has been at the centre of controversies within the FAI for a decade, during which time he has emerged from the obscurity of directing a small club to reach the central position in Irish soccer.
He first came to public attention in the controversy over Eircom Park in 1998. Eircom Park, the proposed new ground for Irish international soccer, was spearheaded by then general manager Bernard O'Byrne. O'Byrne envisioned a facility that was independent of the IRFU and while many in the FAI were attracted to this idea, it also had sizable internal opposition within the FAI from the beginning.
Most of this opposition came from league clubs of which John Delaney, then director at Waterford United, was a prominent voice. The clubs' dissent stemmed from an apprehension that the grandiose project would divert resources away from grassroots, although O'Byrne promised would not happen.
The initial cost was claimed to be “set in stone” at IR£65m (€82.55m) and would be covered by private financing and corporate box sales. But it wasn't “set in stone”, set merely in a non-binding letter.
The cost first increased when the offer of a free 40-acre site in Clondalkin fell through, forcing the association to add another IR£13.5m (€17.2m) to secure a 50-acre site in City West. This location created its own problems as its proximity to Casement Aerodrome, owned by the Department of Defence, put a height restriction of 45 meters on the development. Eircom Park was initially to be 62 meters high. Expensive redesigns had to be undertaken to meet planning criteria.
The opposition coming from the Department of Defence was written off as a Bertie Ahern ruse to persuade the FAI to support his own Abbottstown stadium proposals, which was nicknamed the “Bertie Bowl”. This suspicion was reinforced by the numerous private meetings that were held between government officials and FAI officers opposed to the Eircom Park venture, such as the honorary treasurer Brendan Menton.
As the planning disputes rolled on, the price continued to grow. At the June 2000 AGM, Menton and dissenting clubs forced the board to reassess costs, which, by January 2001, had risen to IR£130m (€165.1m).
By March 2001 O'Byrne had bowed to internal pressure and for the first time the FAI officially met with Bertie Ahern to discuss his proposals. At this meeting Bertie Ahern offered the FAI IR£125m (€158.75m) in funding if they backed the Abbottstown plans. Three days later at a meeting of the FAI board and council the offer was accepted and Eircom Park was dead.
Bernard O'Byrne's position was untenable and in April 2001 he resigned. Delaney's stock, by comparison, had risen significantly and some in the media were pushing for him to replace O'Byrne as general manager.
Brendan Menton became the new general manager with Delaney taking over as honorary treasurer – his first significant promotion within the FAI. His profile was further heightened by the Roy Keane/Saipan debacle, when, fortuitously, he was the sole senior official at home to handle the frantic media demands arising from the departure in acrimony for the Irish team of its most formidable player and captain.
The then president Milo Corcoran was already in Saipan, Brendan Menton had left for a FIFA conference in Izumo, and John Delaney was left, not reluctantly, handling the crisis at the home base.
Following the World Cup, Ireland's Euro 2004 qualification attempt got off to a bad start with defeats to both Russia and Switzerland in the opening matches. With the public turning against him, McCarthy informed the association in November 2002 that he wanted to leave despite recently having his contract renewed.
General manager Brendan Menton had also stepped down in November 2002, following the publication of a report by consultancy firm Genesis on the Saipan incident. Delaney himself has long been an advocate of the Genesis report's recommendations, threatening to resign his post as honorary treasurer if it were not fully endorsed and promising all its recommendations would be enacted within 12 months.
The Genesis recommendations were ratified by the board, however, Alistair Grey of Genesis has recently pointed out that the FAI board still does not contain any independent members and the association had also failed to appoint a high performance coach – two important recommendations of the report.
Following the report's publication the association had neither a general manager nor a national coach and with a Euro 2004 qualification campaign underway the priority was on finding the latter first. To do so the FAI set up a selection panel consisting of Kevin Fahy, honorary secretary, John Delaney and Milo Corcoran, president. They also enlisted the help of former player and Northern Ireland manager Bryan Hamilton, as advisor.
Early contenders for the job included Philippe Troussier, who had developed a strong reputation as Japan's manager in the previous World Cup and Peter Reid, who McCarthy had replaced at Sunderland. Eventually the position came down to Brian Kerr and Bryan Robson with the panel favouring Kerr two to one; Delaney was the lone dissenter.
Kerr had many admirers because of his success as Ireland's under-21 manager but Delaney was not one of them. There had been tensions between the two over resources while Kerr was both technical director and manager of the under-21 side.
Following Kerr's appointment the FAI sought a new general manager, or CEO as the post had been renamed. In late April 2003 Fran Rooney was appointed. Given his business success with Baltimore Technologies and his previous involvement in women's international soccer, Rooney appeared to be the perfect fit.
Rooney saw his purpose as being the implementation of the Genesis report and began to enact many of its recommendations, such as the reduction of the 22-man board to 10 men and the introduction of seven committees to cover various aspects of Irish soccer.
But while these changes gave the impression of a leaner system, the detail ensured that senior FAI figures could continue to reward their allies and isolate their opposition.
Under the changes made, the 10-man board consisted of the FAI's president, CEO, honorary treasurer, honorary secretary and representatives from six of seven newly established committees.
The vast majority of those sitting on the committees are chosen by the president, CEO and a council representative and as a result two senior members of the board have huge control over who else gets nominated to the board. This leaves little room for opposing views.
Genesis also recommended the introduction of a human resources manager and this post was given to Tadhg O'Halloran, who had previously worked with FAI spokesperson Declan Conroy, in Aer Lingus.
O'Halloran's time at human resources saw the exit of many of the association's most vocal staff including marketing manager Eddie Cox, Eircom League chairman Brendan Dillon and Kevin Fahy, former honorary secretary, who was ousted in mid-2004 allegedly because of his poor minute-taking!
Rooney's own eventual departure – which O'Halloran also had a hand in – was sparked by a row over another Genesis recommendation; the introduction of an independent financial director.
Delaney felt the role would best suit Association accountant Peter Buckley, but as he already worked in the FAI Buckley was not deemed to be independent by the Sports Council, which was threatening to withdraw funding should the position not be filled properly. As a result, Rooney decided to overlook Buckley and seek the new financial director externally.
This rejection was seen as Rooney ignoring the wishes of senior members of the association and shortly afterwards a letter was sent to the association president making complaints about Rooney. A committee was established to investigate the allegations made however it never met and by early November 2004 Rooney was gone.
In the aftermath of Rooney's exit Delaney was appointed as temporary CEO. He spent this time closing deals that were in negotiation in the final months of Rooney's tenure, including a renewal of the sponsorship deal with Umbro and the closing of a TV rights deal. He emerged as the obvious choice for the CEO position.
On the pitch during this time the national team under Kerr was struggling to qualify for World Cup 2006. With the pundits and general public beginning to lose patience with Kerr, who had not secured qualification for Euro 2004 either, a hostile voice – Delaney's – in charge of the association added to his problems.
Having been promised a new contract, Kerr now found his requests for meetings going unanswered. When asked, Delaney also refused to give Kerr any public sign of support. Once Ireland failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, the board decided not to renew his contract and his tenure ended.
The process of finding Kerr's replacement got underway quickly and contrary to assertions by Delaney, he was a key player in the decision to appoint former Ireland international Steven Staunton to the position. Delaney and Staunton had been friends before the job became available and when it came to finalising the deal only Delaney and FAI spokesperson Declan Conroy travelled to Birmingham to do so.
The deal agreed was a four year contract, announced in January 2006, along with a private pledge from Delaney that he would stand by him for the full term. This pledge was later repeated in public by both men, even as team performances deteriorated.
But performances continued to deteriorate and once Ireland's chances of qualification ended in October 2007, this implicit support was gone. Delaney distanced himself from the appointment in an RTÉ interview on 18 October and on the 23 October Staunton was removed.
Staunton's sacking came on the back of many poor performances against teams like Cyprus and San Marino, however financial concerns played a role too. Attendance at the Croke Park game against Wales in March 2007 was close to capacity at 72,539 attendees but by Germany's arrival in October this was down to 67,495. The decline continued and by the sold-out match against Cyprus only 54,000 fans were present, meaning that 19,000 ticket-holders simply decided not to turn up.
With 10-year deals on corporate boxes at Lansdowne Road due to go on the market it was clear that such dwindling interest would prove financially disastrous, unless something radical was done.
Following Staunton's sacking plans for a three-man panel which would find a new manager were announced. The association initially targeted former Irish internationals John Giles, Kevin Moran and Niall Quinn however Giles publicly ruled himself out immediately and was not approached. Moran and Quinn were equally uninterested.
Eventually former English league coach Don Howe, former international Ray Houghton and Under-21 manager Don Givens were chosen for the role. As Givens was Under-21 manager he would effectively be interviewing his next boss and during the process the panel regularly liaised with Delaney.
Unbeknownst to the panel Delaney was also liaising with businessman Denis O'Brien, keeping him informed of all progress made by the panel in identifying and interview candidates. Despite this it did not become public knowledge that O'Brien was involved in the process until its end.
The process went on for many months with little sign of progress however by late January 2008 it appeared that long-time favourite and former England boss Terry Venables would get the job.
However just days before the expected announcement Delaney was told informally that Giovanni Trapattoni might be interested. With Trapattoni's record at Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Juventus he by far the best option
It was not until 9 February, days before Trapattoni's unveiling, that the involvement of Denis O'Brien came to light when an article on website chatsoccer.eu reported a donation from an unnamed businessman.
The next day The Star on Sunday gave further detail. This claimed €1m had been put forward by a businessman and FAI president David Blood confirmed this. “We are in a situation where if people want to make an offer it will be given full consideration by us. If people want to assist us there's no way that we wouldn't discuss it at a very high level,” said Blood. “At the moment we have no full time arrangement about anything that's been offered to us,” which made clear that board approval had not been given to the offer.
Delaney named Denis O'Brien as the donor at the formal announcement of Trapattoni as manager on 14 February and said he had approached the association in November 2007, after Staunton had been sacked. This was contradicted that night by O'Brien who stated on TV3's Nightly News With Vincent Browne that he had contacted Delaney after the Cyprus match in October, a week before Staunton was removed.
In a hasty response, Delaney's story changed and now said that O'Brien had left him a message after the Cyprus match but the call was not returned until Staunton was sacked (the claim that Delaney would not bother returning a call from an Irish billionaire businessman, offering funding for the appointment of a first class manager is implausible however).
The statement also said Delaney sought and obtained board approval for the offer in November which contradicted David Blood's assertion on 10 February that no deal had been agreed at that time.
There was a further contradiction.. In his statement at the press conference, Delaney said the financial assistance “enabled us to raise the bar even higher than we had intended.” However when asked on RTÉ's Six One News if the appointment would have happened without O'Brien's help Delaney said “Yes… we would have done it off our own financial resources, but what this allows us to do, by Denis helping out, it allows us to put more money into grassroots as a result.”
However regardless of the means, the end result has taken public pressure off Delaney – a pressure that seemed unstoppable before the Trapattoni rabbit was pulled from the FAI hat. And while the control Delaney holds over the board and wider association may unsettle some, it is clear that the infighting which gave him the opportunity to progress in the first place has now been quelled, at least at senior level.
Delaney's contract lasts until 2012 and with a loyal board there is no obvious appetite for another ousting. That any potential successors have either left or been removed from the organisation also makes his immediate demise unlikely. Provided the Trapattoni rabbit performs.