- 06 Oct 20
With Ireland gearing up for a crunch Euro playoff against Slovakia on Thursday, the Sunday Times journalist discusses the brilliant Champagne Football, which lifts the lid on the excesses of the John Delaney era in the FAI.
As Ireland gear up for a vitally important Euro playoff against Slovakia this week, fans are fervently hoping that victory in this game and an ensuing playoff final – against either Bosnia or Northern Ireland – will launch a new era for Irish football under Stephen Kenny.
Certainly, in addition to a massively welcome financial boost, qualification for next summer’s Euros would mark a neat breaking point from what has, to put it mildly, been a tumultuous period for the FAI.
The fraught 14-year reign of ex-CEO John Delaney is chronicled in Champagne Football, an absolutely gripping read from Sunday Times journalists Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, which is easily the Irish sports book of the year. Starting with a report about Delaney’s €100,000 bridging loan to the FAI in March of 2019, throughout that spring, the Sunday Times produced a remarkable series of stories detailing both the association’s chaotic finances, and how Delaney appeared to run it as his personal fiefdom.
On the Saturday night Ireland played Gibraltar in a Euro qualifier that March, dramatic events were taking place behind the scenes, as Delaney and the board rushed to respond to the impending ST report about the FAI paying the rent on Delaney’s €3,000-a-month Wicklow mansion. As beleaguered as the association was, Tighe acknowledged in a recent interview that he couldn’t have imagined the story concluding as it did, with the exit of Delaney and the FAI old guard.
“The week before the Gibraltar game was when we broke the €100k story, and John Delaney failed in his injunction attempt,” Tighe explains to Hot Press. “We didn’t know it would escalate so quickly. It was great that we were able to break the rent story the day after the Gibraltar game. On March 1, we sent in the queries to John’s new PR person Cathal Dervan and his solicitor. As we detail in the book, little did we know that three days later, there was a board meeting where John had set in train this Executive Vice President plan, where he basically designed his exit.
“In retrospect, it was interesting: was this something John had been planning for a while and he pressed fast forward on it? Or was it something he just cooked up on the spot? That’s something only he can answer, but definitely it was all sped up to a great extent. In the bizarre circumstances, the deal was done in Gibraltar where they wrote out this new contract for him, on the headed notepaper of The Rock Hotel. The deal was announced shortly after the full-time whistle.
“It just made the whole thing look even more bizarre, and rightly drew more attention to the FAI. Hand-in-hand with what we were putting out there, with the rent and the strange bridging loan, it showed that underneath the surface, the FAI’s finances and John’s rule were quite chaotic.”
Like a lot of football fans, I couldn’t help but find a degree of hilarity in the FAI’s immediate response to the controversy: apparently, an independent review had conveniently found that Delaney should immediately move to the newly created role of Executive Vice President. Handily, the position would involve Delaney forsaking most of his domestic duties whilst retaining his plum role at UEFA.
Indeed, as well as providing a brilliant insight into the mismanagement of Irish football over the course of more than a decade, Champagne Football also offers plentiful black comedy – often, the FAI’s attempts to stave off financial and organisation meltdown take on the feel of a Thick Of It episode. Then there are the numerous bizarre side details, like kit man Johnny Fallon forging Roy Keane’s signature on jerseys given to charity, due to a fear amongst FAI staff of asking the fiery Keane to do it himself.
“People in football are kind of funny people, and there’s a lot of unintentional humour,” notes Mark. “People are great at recalling stuff, and there are some great anecdotes. I think Liveline are doing a piece on Johnny Fallon Sr and his Roy Keane impression on his signatures.
“There is a lot of high farce and we wanted to get that across. It’s so crazy, you’re not going to believe it – this stuff actually happened. I didn’t want it to be a dry book about blazers and the fights for power. We were going: here are the personalities and the crazy stuff that happened as well.”
The crazy stuff also included Delaney – already on a base salary of €360,000 a year – running up almost half-a-million euro in credit card debt between 2015 and April 2019, including spending on jewellery, hotels and limousines. This, in a climate where many FAI staff had been forced into pay-cuts during the financial crash, and the association was struggling to pay off the debt on the Aviva stadium redevelopment, their masterplan of selling off Vantage Club tickets to the corporate sector turning into yet another debacle.
In his research, did Tighe find there was a comparable FA in Europe in terms of the endless controversies?
“Every association, or the rugby unions or whatever, they have their problems with blazers,” he replies. “You have volunteers rising to high positions and not really keeping corporate governance. So I think that’s a common problem, but definitely no football association in Europe – and they all have their issues – had such a deep-rooted problem that it affected their solvency. I’ve asked people in UEFA about it, and football correspondents across Europe: has there ever been an equivalent where an association had to be bailed out by its own government?
“Or literally faced pulling out of UEFA or FIFA competitions because it was going bankrupt? No one could point me in the direction of any comparable case. So not only was there a problem with the blazers and corporate governance, but there was a deep financial malaise at the heart of the association. That goes back to the root of the Aviva stadium, and the chaotic and ridiculous scheme where they were looking to charge a minimum €12,000 for a season ticket over 12 years.
“So yes, there are problems with many associations, but unfortunately, the FAI is a special case in terms of how badly it was run financially.”
Tighe says he started to take a serious interest in the Delaney saga when business mogul Denis O’Brien first committed to part-financing the pay of the senior international manager, which started during the Giovanni Trapattoni reign and continued into the tenure of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.
“I suppose I’d always had an interest in Denis O’Brien and everything he’s done, from my covering of the Moriarty Tribunal as a legal correspondent in The Sunday Times,” he notes. “I remember when it emerged that O’Brien was sponsoring Giovanni Trapattoni’s salary, I was asked to write a profile of John Delaney.
“For whatever reason, it didn’t run, but I did a lot of research into his own finances and history. He was involved in a bakery and an internet shop, a small enough business. A logistics company as well – one of his biggest ventures. I’d always kept an eye on them. He was also involved in a construction company developing houses down in Tipperary.
“I’d always monitor them, and thought, ‘This is curious. He’s keeping a lot of those business interests running at the same time as he’s chief executive of the FAI'. I thought it was unusual that he hadn’t dedicated himself fully. He had his fingers in a lot of pies sports-wise too – he became vice-president of the Olympic Council of Ireland. He was Pat Hickey’s right hand man and kind of anointed successor as well.”
Increasingly, Delaney sought the limelight.
“He gradually became a celebrity and really embraced that,” Mark adds. “He was drinking with the fans and buying pints, but also – especially with the arrival of his girlfriend Emma English, and just before that, with his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing – he was really pushing himself out there as a celebrity sports administrator.”
In 2014, meanwhile, Independent News & Media – where O’Brien was then the majority shareholder – commissioned the hagiographic documentary John The Baptist.
“A complete low point in Irish journalism,” says Tighe. “For me, that brought together so many different stories. You had Denis O’Brien, who has boasted about not being interviewed by his own media, but here he is as the largest shareholder in INM, and he’s giving this famous laudatory quote: ‘John Delaney could run anything, especially Fifa, and better than Sepp Blatter'.
“This is the media organisation that he has huge influence over, and he’s supporting John Delaney financially through the money to Martin O’Neill, as it was then. Such a soft focus piece, and it was launched in the Sugar Club. For me, that was going way over the top, it was just bonkers.”
As an Ireland fan himself, Tighe had previously encountered the Delaney juggernaut at Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine, where the shoeless CEO was infamously carried back to his hotel on the shoulders of partying Irish fans.
“I would have been in Poznan and Sopot, out drinking with my friends and seeing John Delaney walking past,” recalls Mark. “All the fans were singing his praises: ‘John Delaney used to be a wanker but he’s alright now'. People would be going, ‘John’s in that pub, he’s buying drink for everyone. Let’s go!’ And I’m going, ‘What is going on here?!’ So you had the surrealness of all that, and the fact that a lot of big stories in Ireland were running through him: football, Denis O’Brien, INM – that whole thing was embodied in John Delaney.
“Then there was his closeness to some people. He was good friends with Stephen Rae, the Irish Independent editor. Then Ian Mallon became the FAI spokesperson, and he would previously have been the deputy editor in the Irish Independent. A lot of that drew my attention news-wise, and my colleague Paul Rowan would have been writing about the issues of corporate governance in the sports section as well.
“Paul’s based in the UK, but whenever he was back in Ireland, we’d be tick-tacking, going ‘What’s going on? What can we do to dig further into the story, and the bizarre stuff that’s going on?’”
Following the tumult of Delaney’s exit, the FAI endured another obligatory controversy following the arrival of the so-called ‘Visionary Group’ of Niall Quinn, Gary Owens and Roy Barrett. Earlier this year, grassroots clubs around the country felt they were in danger of losing their voice under the new regime, though that seems to have dissipated somewhat following the securing of government funding to see the association through the Covid era, as well as the exits of Quinn and Owens.
One thing is for certain: the FAI could dearly do with the money, prestige and feelgood factor that would come with the Irish team qualifying for a third successive Euros. What does Tighe see as the future for the association?
“The financial legacy is disastrous and there are decades of debt repayments ahead of them,” he says bluntly. “New debt had to be taken out keep the association solvent. So unfortunately, it’s very hard for the FAI to get out from under that legacy. If you’re going to be realistic about it, Covid is an 18-month to two-year problem. That’s a big difficulty in terms of getting fans back in the door for internationals and the League of Ireland. But it’s going to get huge government support. As Gary Owens in said at a recent Oireachtas hearing, at least this time it’s not their fault.
“But there is an opportunity now. I think, yes, there was a problem with the three guys from the Visionary Group being too close. Roy Barrett is still there, and he is a very capable businessman. He did well in securing the government bailout, which Shane Ross swore wouldn’t happen only a few weeks before Barrett arrived. So give them credit for that, cos that’s a lot of mistrust with the FAI, understandably.
“The football directors that have come on have done well – they didn’t have to come on there to deal with the shitshow that was left. A lot of those people weren’t there when a lot of the problems happened. Football is a money-maker, TV revenue is massive. Other football associations aren’t swimming in debt, so if they get their show in order in the League of Ireland, there’s actually great opportunity there to develop the sport in Ireland.”
Ultimately, Tighe feels there are grounds for a small degree of hopefulness.
“I’m an optimist, so I’d hope the new guy is commercially orientated, and he can help build up the grassroots and the League of Ireland in a sustainable way, where they’re not looking at Thomond Park or county GAA grounds in envy. That they’ll have good standards when we finally do get the crowds back in. But hopefully they don’t repeat the many mistakes of the past and have proper governance in place.”
Champagne Football is out now, published by Penguin Ireland. To read the full interview with Mark Tighe, check out the upcoming October issue of Hot Press.