Thursday 12 December 2019

Painting FAI Windows....

It’s not unusual for a national sports body to be seeking a CEO or Chairman in today’s competitive world as witnessed by events recently when the CEO of the Premier League resigned before he even started due to inappropriate behaviour (before taking up the position). It might also be viewed as careless for an organisation to lose its CEO. But in the parallel universe of football where some managers are about to experience a harsh Christmas with sackings already gathering pace. But depending on which side of the debate you sit on in the perennial debate, is football a business or a sport - it’s all perhaps self-explanatory. 

Yet the Football Association Ireland (FAI) has produced its own bizarre circumstances by not only losing their CEO a few months ago; also its main sponsor and then discovering a series of financial issues that leave the Association insolvent as it seems the FAI had few financial controls or Governance guidelines during a time it was handling millions and had sizeable debt commitments. These issues only coming to light when a reported cash call by the association was resolved by their CEO at the time with a personal cheque for €100K. 

An unusual event and only made public when a leading journalist in The Sunday Times reported the story. Otherwise the song would have remained the same on Irish football and the great job being done their CEO just crtuces by his detractors. By the same token it was the FAI, a body that has always been different because of the so-called football family ethos, is accustomed to the bizarre and always makes it all sound normal. Akin to the euphemism characterised in the movie The Irishman about painting windows. 

The innards of the FAI have always been somewhere between a secret society and a local gang and always reluctant to accept outsiders. As a result, the association has seen the demise of multiple CEO’s over recent years all unable to survive the rigours of the Association. There was businessman Fran Rooney; Brendan Menton, a long-time FAI administrator; a current FIBA Board Member, Bernard O’Byrne or for those of a bygone era the Kilcoyne family of Shamrock Rovers fame. 

The job seemingly so special and specific that it could fit very few men or women on this island. Except for the last incumbent who wielded absolute control for over 15 years it appears over the organistra’s and demanded the same beyond its walls also. However, that same CEO has left the association with a €55M losses - after the FAI 2018 accounts were restated - with the 2019 accounts still to be published with perhaps another €18m loss accrued to date. In recent days the era of John Delaney leaves a landscape so drastically damaged only tough solutions remain to keep the ssociation operational. 

Albeit UEFA has provided loans in the meantime for current shorter liabilities and keep the doors open at their extensive HQ in Abbottstown outside Dublin. 

The accounts indicate the involvement in the AVIVA Stadium was beyond financial sense and perhaps the start of the cashflow difficulties for the FAI in what now looks like the remnants of a half-cooked pyramid scheme. Or a last ditched effort to help the association meet its obligations and not default on bank loans. Or a schemed to save face for the now departed CEO unable to swallow his ego or admit the Vantage Plan was never a good ticket idea at the time of economic crisis. However, humility had no value in the ex-CEO’s lexicon. 

Therefore, the schemes that followed were even a worse miscalculation and only exacerbated matters further. In fact, only the probity of the IRFU ensured the AVIVA exists today and that the FAI even have somewhere to play the Internationals or eve host EURO 2020 games. More seriously, the FAI annual accounts failed to explicitly disclose that debt liability year on year. For which Deloittes have issued a recent disclaimer after their work on the readjusted 2018 numbers was published. This all happening despite the background of endless questions over the years by members of the Fifth Estate. Many of whom faced serious reprimands by their editors for daring ask the FAI CEO probing questions on the AVIVA repayments. 

None of this was not ameliorated by Irelands’ libel laws either or when one major newspaper tycoon sponsored the FAI national management team. So, on the face of it any financial engineering went unquestioned by the proletariat, the government and all the business tycoons. Much of which still remains under investigation with An Garda. Meanwhile though the game must go on at all levels and do so without money in the FAI current accounts. 

Clearly no rocket scientists are needed to figure out that the professional game (i.e. international team etc) is a different business to the grassroots (i.e. schoolboys and perhaps even the League of Ireland). The latter needing a day to day administration while the firer doesn’t. The future can also sustain a role for club members on a national council which then has oversight of the domestic game. But there is no reason why - unless qualified – that those same roles should enable directorships at FAI Management, board or international level as currently has been allowed to happen. 

The resignation of Donal Conway and soon to be John Earley, ends that politburo type promotion system that enabled the former CEO to rise up the ranks unchecked to a position of total authority. More importantly, without the proven skills to address the business issues that he would have to face during his tenure at the FAI. Albeit much of it all was of his own na├»ve creation. Allegedly being advised by a Board (of two) with no requisite experience or knowledge either. 

Other federations be it the RFEF in Spain, the FA in the UK or DFB in Germany have long some separated their international football from domestic. Which is now a must for the Irish game despite the damage that has already been done. Nothing wrong with running the sport like a family but the professionals recruited, paid and held responsible for adherence to standard operating procedures from businesses and have oversight of the bigger picture. Afterall, it is a fifty million-euro business and needs to be managed as such to protect the game, the Association itself and any shareholders or stakeholders. 

The news of the termination agreement with the former CEO does not make good reading either and in stark contrast to the news facing Sepp Blatter, formerly of FIFA, or Michel Platini formerly of UEFA, who are currently being sued by those same organisations they once headed up. Whatever the details in the KOSI report – which are not yet public for sensitivity reasons - will no doubt highlight a lack of accountability in Abbottstown. But like the HSE, national broadband or voting machines these matters re political footballs. Never more so than now given a pending election in 2020. 

But what rings loud and clear is that secrecy doesn’t work. Nor does a lack of supervision as human behaviour dictates organisations need systems in order to have certain cross checks in place. Afterall, Plato, the Greek philosophers said that ‘Society was just man written large’ and by definition so are any failings which can offer opportunism in the absence of structure or control. In the FAI’s case it led to the uncontrolled financial losses, the departure of talented peoples within the organisation. It now also leaves a bleak outlook for soccer in Ireland facing years of uncertainty. 

Like a ship with a hole under the waterline the vessel has to be stabilised and some of those aboard can race for the available lifeboats. Only when the leaking is stemmed can progress be made though and in the meantime is just a race to see which battle can be won first - the sinking or the staying afloat. Not an impossible scenario but a horror movie when contrasted with the picture the FAI was selling about itself for years with their CEO appearing regularly on radio and TV shows extolling his unique alchemic touch at the helm of the good ship 

Sadly, now the association has been laid bare and is not fit for purpose so is the right time to reform all the internal structures. The short-term future though is basic survival and meet the needs so as to minimise damage to the schoolboy game or the international team. The right resources are needed in the right areas, and new aces required to take the game forward, yet not throwing out the bath water. For a start just a simple series of good auditory practices would suffice in the first instance. Unfortunately, anyone currently on the good ship kangaroo remains tainted regardless and so changes are inevitable. 

The international side of the FAI and the Senior squad will be a smaller organisation with the domestic game larger yet sustaining itself once the grant funding is restored. It should be delivered directly to the designated clubs eligible. It will continue its good work as it always has done and perhaps on a smaller scale to start. But finding the much-needed sponsors to replace Three will be much tougher yet the FAI now offers little perceived value or a brand which can offer opportunity to leading products. But the need for commercial income has never been greater or the urgency required and so it is jobbing no doubt for an impossible dreamer. But no better place than the field of dreams to start fresh ideas.

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