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Wednesday 29 January 2020

Irish football is facing up to bleak future

FAI's financial crisis means grassroots game here will bear the brunt of cuts

IN THE RED: FAI President Donal Conway, right, and lead executive Paul Cooke at the announcement of the FAI’s accounts
IN THE RED: FAI President Donal Conway, right, and lead executive Paul Cooke at the announcement of the FAI’s accounts

Another one of those utterly bizarre days involving the Football Association of Ireland when the f-word, the one in their title, is barely mentioned.

The perilous state of the FAI was laid bare for the nation when their accounts were made public.

Normal issues that take up the usual conversations surrounding the game - we lost a game we should have won, that was never a penalty, how is that lad still getting picked every week - seem trite as the football world in this country sat back and looked on in awe as the scale of the debts in the FAI, and how they reached that debt level, caused shock.

What happened at FAI HQ yesterday was not about football and all about football at the same time.

doubt

And should anyone be in doubt, football in Ireland will suffer due to the financial crisis which an FAI board, unbelievably lax and uninterested when it came to million-euro loyalty bonuses and eye-watering pension payments to their best-paid employee, has sleep-walked into.

FAI staff will lose their jobs or suffer pay cuts. Regional coaches will be laid off or else redeployed but with someone else paying their wages. Well-meaning community schemes will be cut back or axed.

The hope expressed last month by Stephen Kenny, senior Ireland manager in waiting, that his U21 side could charter a plane to far-flung destinations like Armenia instead of an energy-sapping five-flight schedule on regular airlines will, it's fair to say, not be realised.

When he spoke at a briefing last year to explain the now-discredited 2017 accounts, John Delaney had hopes that projects like the Glanmire training complex in Cork and the revamp of United Park in Drogheda could proceed: now the FAI are being asked by UEFA's money men to sell assets like the Drogheda ground.

As the men in suits of the FAI board (and they are all men as things stand) bore the nation's gaze, younger men in tracksuits nipped up and down the corridors of the building, the coaches and grassroots people who are mentioned so often but who get so little consideration.

One thing is clear: any FAI staffer working directly with the game is not on a salary of €360,000 with an astonishing loyalty bonus and a €2million pension pot.

TOP TABLE: FAI Board Member John Earley, Chairman of the Underage Committee, at FAI HQ in Abbotstown, who will be the only board member left from the John Delaney era when David Conway steps down
TOP TABLE: FAI Board Member John Earley, Chairman of the Underage Committee, at FAI HQ in Abbotstown, who will be the only board member left from the John Delaney era when David Conway steps down

There will be "consequences", the word used by Donal Conway when addressing FAI staff on Tuesday. Former FAI CEO Bernard O'Byrne last night predicted "five years of austerity" at the FAI as they try to cope with the hole in their finances.

The Aviva Stadium, sold as a cash cow for sport here by John Delaney and opened in 2010, Lionel Messi one of the first visitors, is like a Celtic Tiger-era apartment in Bulgaria, not making the money intended. Instead the mortgage on that has been extended, kicked down the road to 2034.

The ground, known as the Dublin Arena by UEFA, is due to host four matches at the Euro 2020 finals, the grim prospect of the Republic of Ireland not attending their own house party as the team's qualification is still two tough play-off games away.

insisted

The FAI have insisted that the financial crisis does not jeopardise the Euros in any way.

"UEFA, in every host city, provide the money to cover costs. So there is no danger whatsoever to any arrangements around Euro 2020. That proceeds exactly as intended," Conway said.

There are some steps ahead. Conway met this week with Amrod, the firm tasked with hiring the four independent directors, the completion of that process key to any progress with the Government.

Next week the FAI will meet Sport Ireland and by the end of next month, Conway will have stepped down as president after an EGM.

His exit will ease tensions between the Government and the FAI, but the tap will not be turned back on, and saving the FAI is not the Government's job. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross said last night, why pour money into a black hole?

The office of FAI president was once something to be prized, for those who liked how they looked in blazers. Now it's an honorary post which, for the next few years of austerity, will carry with it little honour.

FAI staff were hoping to learn over the weekend just how serious the cuts will be. Expecting anything less than savage is ambitious.

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