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Shock of Gibraltar

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ON TARGET: Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty celebrate after Hendrick scored the only goal of the game in Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Gibraltar in their Euro 2020 Group D qualifier last year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

ON TARGET: Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty celebrate after Hendrick scored the only goal of the game in Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Gibraltar in their Euro 2020 Group D qualifier last year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

ON TARGET: Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty celebrate after Hendrick scored the only goal of the game in Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Gibraltar in their Euro 2020 Group D qualifier last year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It was a forgettable game on an unforgettable day.

History was made when Gibraltar were afforded the honour of hosting Ireland on their own patch, but the dawn of their new era was overshadowed by the beginning of the end for a flawed empire.

On a Saturday evening in March, John Delaney fought for his future in the FAI and football while Mick McCarthy's team huffed and puffed against the minnows. Few Irish eyes within the stadium were fully concentrated on the action on the park. This was a competitive international like no other.

A week previously, the Sunday Times had won a legal battle to print details of Delaney's €100k bridging loan to the FAI and the fallout had set the rumour mill churning.

Opinions were split.

Veterans who had watched Delaney ride out one storm after the other were convinced this would blow over. Indeed, this view was held within the corridors of Abbotstown.

But the flurry of FAI statements on governance in response strengthened the contrary view, especially when Sport Ireland, Minister for Sport Shane Ross and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were pressed to offer a public response. On the eve of the game, in the British-style pubs and streets with a Spanish backdrop, there was little else being discussed.

The hosts put on a reception for visiting press which was attended by their chief minister. Even the Gibraltarians were aware that something was afoot in the away camp, much as they weren't fully on top of the details.

Meeting

It later transpired that the FAI board were meeting that Friday night, with absent members dialling in by conference call. This was very much a working trip for the official delegation.

Saturday started normally. The day of the match is generally the only opportunity to explore the location, and the ideal way to see the sights of Gibraltar is the six-minute cable car ride to the summit of the Rock.

It's an opportunity to take in the views or get close to the monkeys that roam around the tourist-heavy area at the top.

The cable cars themselves wouldn't comply with our new social distancing reality, and cramped carriages of Ireland fans were creating the traffic in the early afternoon.

It was on the way down that a message came through which suggested that there was news coming on the FAI front that would be more than just another meandering daily statement.

Down at ground level, that word was spreading. Indeed, one journalist made a beeline for the team hotel to seek clarity without any success.

By the time the teams were starting their warm-up, just about every Irish person in the stadium had picked up something from the bush telegraph.

The recurring theme of the gossip was that Delaney's time with the FAI was drawing to a close. Theories grew legs; some grounded in reality and some not. Victoria Stadium, a tight venue located off a motorway next to the airport, was no place to hide.

Prior to kick-off, 'Delaneywatch' was well under way. The FAI top brass were already aware that this ground had the potential to create discomfort.

At other national stadiums, VIPs and dignitaries would be on a different level or cordoned off from the press and punters, with security blocking the path to an introduction. Here, there were no such boundaries.

Gibraltar were on a charm offensive to the Irish media and therefore didn't even think to stop a contingent of us who made our way down the corridor towards a room where Delaney was visibly in discussion with FAI president Donal Conway. The exit sign over the door made for a perfect photo.

Delaney shifted uncomfortably as half a dozen or so hacks crowded outside the door.

"Have you anything to say?" Conway was asked.

"I want to see a game, I'm looking forward to it," he replied, kicking off a back-and-forth exchange. We hadn't heard much from Conway since his appointment.

A press conference afterwards perhaps?

"I'm watching the game."

Does the CEO have your backing?

"Gentlemen, I'm watching the game."

At this point, Delaney intervenes.

"Lads, what you are doing now is unfair. Just go and watch the match."

Will there be a statement later?

"Talk to Cathal (Dervan - FAI communications director) ... that's who you speak to."

Are you going out to watch the game?

"Absolutely. I'm watching the game outside. We're just having a chat, see you."

He wasn't present for all of the match, however, with photographers noting his seat was absent around the time of Jeff Hendrick's decisive goal.

One of the individuals present in the VIP area later shared a photo of Delaney pacing around in the sports hall below the stadium - think of an old school gym-type effort. He had a glass in hand and was on his mobile.

The statement announcing his transition to a newly created role of executive vice-president was just hours away.

* * * * *

Who did Delaney speak to that day? This was a discussion point that came up again in the subsequent weeks and months, both privately and publicly. A guest in the directors' box noted the name of a showbusiness journalist popping up on the CEO's visible phone screen, albeit with no clarity on who had instigated contact.

In the Dáil in December, Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry pursued a line of enquiry with Kieran Mulvey, the chair of the Irish Sports Council and a man who has worn many hats.

He was about to leave one Oireachtas Committee hearing and join another when MacSharry went down a particular route. It's recorded in the official transcripts on the Oireachtas site.

"It has been alleged to me that . . . the FAI had an impromptu board meeting in Gibraltar at which the then CEO tendered his resignation and left the meeting.

"It is further alleged to me that he called Mr Mulvey and following that returned to the meeting and resumed the position as CEO. Is that true?" said MacSharry.

"No, that is not true, the way the deputy has described it," replied Mulvey. "John Delaney rang me to inform me as a courtesy. Mr Delaney rang me to inform me he was taking up this vice-president post. He was leaving his position as CEO.

"I do not know whether he did or not but he was saying that he had either rung or was ringing the Minister (Shane Ross) to inform him of the same."

MacSharry addressed that query to Minister Ross, as Mulvey took a sip from his water.

"He rang me some time around that evening," said Ross. "I had a short conversation with him. It was about 90 seconds long.

"What did the Minister say?" asked MacSharry.

"I said, 'Thank you for telling me'," replied Ross, before questions went in another direction and never quite returned.

Earlier this year, Government sources indicated to this newspaper that senior figures in the Department of Sport were left with the impression that Delaney was exiting the FAI to take up a position with UEFA.

This was a story that was working its way around official circles, yet it's unclear if this was misinformation or a confused reading of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that resulted in the creation of a brand new position.

Last summer, prominent figures in Abbotstown were telling people that Delaney came close to leaving the FAI in March and the implication was that it might have saved the footballing body the wages they paid the Waterford man until his golden handshake departure was finalised in September.

Their assertion was that Delaney was given reason to believe he was capable of riding this storm out.

* * * * *

It was in the minutes after half-time that the tone of the atmosphere changed. Throughout the opening 45 minutes, there seemed to be certainty about murmurs that Delaney was on the way out.

Fans within the ground were on their phone and getting excited, altering their playlists accordingly. They weren't even having their flags confiscated. WhatsApp groups were flying. A friend was in a Dublin pub where an ex-Irish international was overheard telling a group that Delaney was done.

Journalists sitting at home jumped the gun on social media, thinking they were ahead of the curve, but the mood music was shifting.

The interval word out of the hospitality area was that it would be unwise to make assumptions about the post-match statement the FAI had promised. A sponsor who had earlier made a cut-throat gesture was now more reserved in their prediction. We were told to expect a twist.

McCarthy's press conference was an express affair because the feeling was that the big story of the night was set to come. And sure enough, the statement from the FAI dropped not long after McCarthy had left, his side's muddled performance in the wind already an afterthought.

"The board of the FAI has adopted a review of its senior management structure that will see chief executive officer John Delaney move to a new position of executive vice-president with immediate effect," read the intro.

Governance

"Chief operating officer Rea Walshe has been appointed to the role of interim CEO by the board as the recruitment process begins for a new chief executive officer.

"The report was commissioned in February and carried out in recent weeks by sports governance expert Jonathan Hall Associates and their principal Jonathan Hall, who is a former director of governance and director of football services with the English FA."

That was fleshed out by a familiar array of gushing quotes about Delaney's stint as CEO. This was the time when it was sometimes hard to decipher if FAI statements were designed to serve the interests of Delaney or of Irish football.

During the following month, which was peppered by a series of trips to Government buildings, futile attempts were made to clarify who had signed off on releases which indicated that the board were all aware of the €100k loan. We never really got to the bottom of that.

With Delaney sidelined, the main defence of the board members that remained, most notably Conway, was that they didn't know.

The chronology of the Hall report and the terms of reference prompted curiosity too.

We were informed that Delaney brought it to the board after an initial query from the Sunday Times, and that the idea was that splitting his workload would allow him to concentrate on relations with UEFA, FIFA and the proposed 2030 World Cup bid.

Board members were told that UEFA had been briefed, although no specifics were offered. Interestingly, Noel Mooney, who would prove to be one of Delaney's interim replacements, was in Gibraltar with his UEFA suit on.

Leaked

Somewhere along the way, the decision was taken to bring forward the announcement to the hours after the Gibraltar encounter, an embarrassingly transparent and misguided PR strategy that attracted deserved derision.

Evidently, the plan was to try and dampen whatever was coming in the Sunday papers with this late curve ball.

The first in a lengthy series of leaked board minutes detailed the FAI belief that this would get them back in the game.

In this ideal world, the FAI plane would jet off into the skies with the protagonists having performed a mic-drop before the departure.

In reality, any joy was short-lived. Details of Delaney's €3,000-a-month living arrangements actually caused more disquiet in his support base than the initial bridging loan tale.

Tensions that had previously been suppressed or left bubbling under the surface came to the fore.

Long-term Delaney backers were mocked when they emerged to bat on his behalf. TDs who had previously laid out a welcome mat were now looking to gain political capital by distancing themselves.

Three days later, tennis balls were tossed onto the pitch at the Aviva Stadium. Within weeks, Delaney allies in Gibraltar were on the other side of the fence.

McCarthy's players had avoided a banana skin and perhaps Delaney thought he'd done similar. But he was running out of road.