John Fallon: Top festive billing hurtles FAI into turkey-shoot

When a crisis prolongs from days into weeks and now months, it’s a sure sign that any green for go signs will be overtaken by flashing red lights. Festive entertainment of a different kind.
John Fallon: Top festive billing hurtles FAI into turkey-shoot

QUESTIONS TO BE ANSWERED: Chairman of the FAI international and high-performance committee Packie Bonner, left, FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill, centre, and FAI President Gerry McAnaney before the UEFA EURO 2024 Championship qualifying group B match between Netherlands and Republic of Ireland. Pic: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

YOU can hear the metaphors abounding already. 

Fate will decide if the FAI delegation encounter green or red lights at the Kildare Street pedestrian crossing on their way into Leinster House next Tuesday week to face a grilling.

How the association copes with the barrage of questioning over the afternoon session will be intriguing but the symbolism of being before public representatives primarily on matters relating to governance is as pronounced as the jibes already circulating about turkeys and Christmas.

This was supposed to be a different FAI to the version that crumbled in the same setting in 2019.

Back then, John Delaney’s refusal to answer questions on grounds of legal advice was matched in enormity by the obliviousness of Treasurer Eddie Murray to 23 other bank accounts they held apart from the single one he was aware of.

The figures that prompted this summoning are not of that scale but the potential damage is.

Back then, Delaney wasn’t shy about boasting in the Oireachtas how it was the Uefa mothership he was an executive member of, not the State, which was the largest donor to the FAI, but his legacy of carnage means they’ve never been more reliant on the taxpayer to survive, never mind thrive. As was the case four years ago, government grants are stalled. That amounts to €7.3m when the €500,000 supplementary sum bestowed upon women’s football on the back of World Cup qualification is factored in.

Then there’s the €600m-odd they’re seeking from state coffers over a 15-year period to modernise stadia and training grounds, including their own, to merely bring Irish football to a standard similar-sized nations have enjoyed for an age.

That crusade for the financial support was slated to kick off next year but, for the FAI to even get a hearing, they must be trusted as a fit organisation to control their own affairs.

If that sounds like the charge levelled at the organisation four years ago, it would be accurate because the irregularities that arose through an audit of the chief executive’s salary and expenses package have triggered a widening of the oversight into transactions dating back to the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Why precisely Sport Ireland felt the need to engage accounting firm KOSI to screen the FAI’s books has yet to be revealed by the discrepancies uncovered — €12,000 paid in lieu of holidays not taken and an €8,500 benefit in kind tax liability on travel expenses covered — have cast a shadow over the present hierarchy.

That Jonathan Hill repaid the money is immaterial, a minimum for anyone caught short, but the handling of the episode has inflamed a schism which was already brewing at board level.

It has been well established by now that certain directors possessed knowledge before others of both the unorthodox holiday pay arrangement and the alarm bells raised by the audit. That old adage about who knew what and when has commanded airtime in the boardroom since the news was shared to all on November 1.

All of that tension and fallout will now be played out in public; every word, gesture and movement scrutinised inside the windowless confines of the room reserved for the Joint Committee on the Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.

Committee members from across the political party spectrum will be pre-armed with the FAI’s opening statement and, crucially, a copy of said KOSI’s report, presuming their request for sight of the review is acceded to.

Niamh O’Mahony, Catherine Guy and chair Liz Joyce were all part of the FAI’s Executive Performance & Remuneration Committee, a forum established as part of the bailout conditions to engender a culture of checks and balances.

Packie Bonner, understood to be blindsided by the farrago, has also been called for, as has Gerry McAnaney, whose presidency is due to finish at the AGM four days prior to the hearing. Roy Barrett was also meant to end his chairmanship that day but his surprise premature withdrawal on November 9 hasn’t prevented him being summoned to explain himself.

Those of political persuasion envision this visit to Government buildings being merely a warm-up to the real deal of the Public Accounts Committee taking their turn to spin-dry the FAI troupe on February 1.

A cursory observation of their probe into the recent troubles at RTÉ underline the pride they feel in their duties of being the ultimate guardians of where exchequer funding is spent. Of particular interest to some of his activists, all TDs, is the dispersal of covid-19 resilience funding. A total of €33.7m was granted to offset income loss during the pandemic, an influx that Hill admitted contributed to slashing their controversial debts from €63m to €43m

“It was all part of the overall revenues that came into football and lots of sports at the same time,” he said in September. “Covid monies came in and were part of the revenue over that two-and-a-half year period. There was a surplus and the board agreed to use some of that surplus to pay down and restructure the debt.”

In the week that Fergus O’Dowd, chair of the last committee to interrogate the FAI, signalled his departure from politics, the present incumbent Niamh Smyth made it clear there are questions for the FAI to answer.

When a crisis prolongs from days into weeks and now months, it’s a sure sign that any green for go signs will be overtaken by flashing red lights. Festive entertainment of a different kind.

FORAS members will be all ears for Usher’s City update

Exactly a year and two days after being endorsed as new owner of Cork City, Dermot Usher will provide his promised annual update to members next Wednesday.

The businessman’s first 12 months at the helm have been tumultuous to say the least with the stated aim of European qualification soon downgrading into a relegation battle was ultimately unsuccessful.

One permanent manager, two caretakers, including one who was initially Director of Football but is now gone – and a failed quest to snare Kevin Doherty from rivals Drogheda United – encapsulates the turmoil at Turner’s Cross.

At least Usher will be able to denote Tim Clancy’s appointment as a pointer to stability when he addressed the masses at UCC.

The pair were friends before Usher took ownership of City and there was a sense of bewilderment that his release from the manager’s job at St Patrick’s Athletic in May, coupled with Colin Healy’s departure around the same time, didn’t lead to a deal.

That mystery looked set to continue last Friday when Ger Nash deliberated over an offer to take the vacancy but a late push by his employers Aston Villa, where he’s youth team manager, left City back at square one.

There would no further delay, however, as Clancy’s calling arrived – while Liam Buckley’s exit from the DOF post followed within an hour.

Finneran’s strides elevate him into swoop territory for club and country

Andy Moran is the player attracting Irish eyes on Championship high-flyers Blackburn Rovers lately but his name-checking of Rory Finneran was interesting in the context of the teen’s popularity.

Though only 16, he’s already trained with the first-team at Blackburn, as they aim to stave off interest from top outfits such as the Manchester pair and Bayern Munich.

Finneran’s goalscoring, man-of-the-match display in Rovers’s 3-2 win over Chelsea at the weekend will only enlarge his queue of suitors, with a £1m valuation already floated should the offers prove too tempting.

An English-born, Irish international on that trajectory tends to be ominous for the FAI and the talent-spotters of his homeland are watching his international future closely.

He won’t be defecting anytime soon, for Finneran was a central part of the U17 squad that progressed from their Euro first phase qualifiers in Cork into the elite round scheduled for March.

Irish fans need not fret yet. For every Rice and Grealish in the traditional tug-of-war, there’s been a Hodge and Smallbone.


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