- 15 Apr 19
The ex-CEO's pronouncement to us 11 years ago was a lot more prophetic than he could have imagined, as he also discussed Denis O'Brien's funding of the senior management job, media coverage of the association, government grants, Saipan and much else besides.
However, the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni as Ireland manager is one in the eye for his critics. Here, he outlines his vision for the future of Irish football.
The appointment of the vastly experienced Giovanni Trapatonni as the new national team manager is a huge shot in the arm for Irish soccer.
It is an appointment that has, as FAI Chief Executive John Delaney points out, left some soccer pundits with “egg on their face”. After all, the FAI have been getting a hard time from the back (and often the front) pages of the national papers ever since the infamous incident between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy in Saipan, back in 2002. But the hostility towards the FAI increased tenfold during the past 18 months, as our national football team experienced some of their worst results in recent memory under the leadership of Steve Staunton.
In fairness, it was a transitional period. But that doesn’t excuse being on the receiving end of a 5-2 thrashing by the likes of Cyprus – easily the most embarrassing result in Irish competitive football history.
Hopefully there won’t be any similarly humiliating scenarios when Trapattoni leads our national side into battle.
Speaking about eggs and faces, as we were a few minutes ago, Delaney tells a story about the FAI’s legendary General Secretary Peadar O’Driscoll (who was nicknamed ‘Big Dinners’), and an omelette...
“He was away at an omelette speciality restaurant,” recalls Delaney. “My dad was there, and the English FA and all the rest were there, and they were asked what omelette they would like. It came to one guy and he said, ‘I’ll have a mushroom omelette’; and someone else said, ‘I’ll have a tomato omelette’; and it came to my dad and he said, ‘I’ll have a ham omelette’; and Peadar said, ‘I don’t know what you’re having, Joe, but I’m going to have a fucking egg omelette’!”
Despite all the negativity that’s been heaped upon him in recent months, Delaney has managed to keep his sense of humour intact. And he may just be about to have the last laugh…
JASON O’TOOLE: Giovanni Trapattoni’s name only emerged at the end of the recruitment process.
JOHN DELANEY: The guys had been working on it for a little bit, but it was a real possibility about two weeks before I got the phone call from Don Givens saying, “Listen, this really looks like it’s going to happen now. So, you’ll obviously have to go over and do the negotiations.” On the Tuesday – which was the day before the announcement – we had to go and meet his representatives. Sometimes when you get into a room, you wonder whether a deal is going to be done – but the goodwill was there. It’s quite funny, because in the middle of it, I was enquiring about who’d be the number two, and Marco Tardelli came into the room with his wife.
Why did the process take so long?
We said all the way through that it’s no problem appointing a manager. We could appoint a manager any day – on day one, or day 20. But it was important to get a top-class manager in place. We all got excited when we knew there was a real chance of Trapattoni coming. When I was first told, I said, “Listen, that’s worth waiting for.” I knew, prior to the Brazil game, people were wondering but we had a board meeting here in this very room and we said we’d have somebody in within 10 days – and we did. We used up the tenth day – but we did it. I think very few people have argued with Trapattoni’s appointment and his record. Marco Tardelli as his number two is also a top-class appointment as well. He managed Egypt and Inter Milan in his time.
Did Terry Venables come close to being appointed?
He was a good candidate. The level of interest in the job this time was greater than ever before. Given the younger players that have come through, there’s a better squad of players from the point of view of anyone looking to come and manage us. But also from the financial side. With those two dynamics, a lot of interest came. There were a lot of other very credible candidates in the mix.
Did you have to ring someone like Venables and say, “Look, you came close but you didn’t get the job”?
Yeah. Don rang all the other candidates. Anybody who was in the running was informed in advance of the announcement. That’s always a hard one because you can’t ring someone to say, “You haven’t got it,” until you are sure you have who you have. So, it was on the Tuesday when the contracts were signed, that Don felt he could go and ring whatever other candidates felt that they were still in the frame.
The FAI came under fire from certain quarters of the media for accepting what is a substantial financial contribution from Denis O’Brien.
There was nothing wrong with what he did. He made a very honest gesture to help us in terms of funding our next manager. And that releases funds within our organisation to go down to grassroots level – full stop. We would have got more stick if we didn’t take it (laughs). It’s funny, you look at the polls that were done – most people think it was the right thing to do. The Sunday Independent ran a poll and I’m not too sure how supportive they’d be to the FAI generally.
The Sunday Independent ran a front page story stating that the FAI would have an internal investigation into this contribution.
Rubbish! Absolute rubbish.
But would the FAI be publicly damaged if there’s an adverse finding about Denis by the tribunal?
You tell me. What reflects badly on the FAI? All the public wants to see is a top-class manager and a successful Irish team. That’s what I’ve learnt over the last couple of years. You go back to ‘88 and ’90 and Ireland wasn’t yet in the Celtic Tiger age, and the one thing that lifted the Irish public was the performances of the Irish team. If we qualify for the 2010 World Cup, I don’t think it will really matter how, or who, got us there (laughs). You’re not going to hear anyone moaning about Denis O’Brien’s money. It’s the fact that we got there. Which I think we will. Yeah, everyone likes to win well and play well – but ultimately we are in a results business.
Would you now want other millionaires to invest in the game?
What’s key to us is that we get more of the multi-millionaires who now reside in this country involved in Irish football. We’ve seen examples of that with Mick Wallace in Wexford; Gary Kelleher at St. Patrick’s Athletic; Jack McCarthy, an American guy of Irish ancestry, buying into Limerick recently; and you’ve got a number of wealthy individuals who now own Drogheda United. So, if we can get more people who have money to invest in the industry of Irish soccer, that gives us a better chance to get the business models right, and get the wages up to a level where some of the players – who in the past might have opted to play in the lower divisions in England – will prefer to come and play in Ireland.
Did you discuss Trapattoni’s appointment with the players?
No. I met the players in Wales in November. I met a lot of people around that time – 20 or 25 different people - about drawing up the criteria for the new Ireland manager. From a meeting with six or seven of the top senior players, I took certain criteria that were really important to them – not about who it was going to be, but the characteristics of the new manager that they felt would be important. We had 12 different criteria. But I kept in contact with Robbie (Keane, the team captain) a bit. We’d liaise just in terms of how the process was going. And I spoke to Robbie on the Tuesday night when Trapattoni had signed his contract and Robbie was very pleased. He said, “That’s terrific.”
There is media speculation that some players are unhappy with the appointment of Liam Brady to Trapattoni’s backroom staff.
Ah, come on! If Niall Quinn and Roy Keane can work together, anybody can. (Keane was quoted in 2003 as saying Quinn, Staunton and McCarthy could all ‘rot in hell’). Football will never cease to surprise you about who can work together. In fairness, Liam spoke very well of the players and of the association when Giovanni rang him. I don’t think there’s any problem there.
The new manager’s CV is very impressive. Will expectations be too high?
(Laughs) They are now (laughs again). There is goodwill now and there is, of course, an expectation because we brought in a top-class manager. We never qualified for anything up until 1988. The Charlton era was fantastic – two World Cups and the European Championships. We are still living off those memories. We had an exceptional team at that stage, with an exceptional manager. We now have – there is no question about it – an exceptional manager. His CV speaks for itself. The number of titles he’s won in four different countries; his three UEFA Cups and European Cup – and all that goes with that.
But are we good enough to qualify for the next World Cup?
We’ll see in the coming tournament just how good our players are. We have the spine of a very good team – with Richard Dunne, Shay Given, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and players like that. The younger ones like Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt – and Stephen Ireland coming back – aren’t bad either, so we’ve got a chance. Are we good enough to challenge? The answer to that is yes. Are we good enough to finish above Bulgaria? We’ve got a good chance of finishing above Bulgaria.
The media had a field day with criticism about how long it took to appoint the manager.
A lot of the stuff was so far away from the reality of what was happening. You read the back pages and you hear about this fellow being favourite and that fellow being favourite, and this fellow being interviewed, and that fellow being interviewed. There were so many favourites you’d end up losing count. But in reality, when you know what’s going on – and I was briefed on a regular basis – it gave me great comfort. There was never any pressure put on them. Go and get the right appointment.
But would you say that some of the stuff written on the back pages was below the belt?
There are good people in the national media who have a passion for the game and who are fair-minded. But one or two ended up with egg on their face this time around. If one or two of the journalists looked at what they’ve written over the last few months, they’d be a bit embarrassed. It doesn’t matter how you appoint the manager, once you get the right one.
I’m sure you and the ‘Three Wise Men’ celebrated when the deal was signed?
Don Givens, myself and Ray dropped into Nesbitt's and we had a few pints on the Wednesday after the press conference. There was a great reaction from the public that night – I must say we enjoyed it. The lads were in the perfect environment because they were living in England. They only heard about what was being written, so they could operate in a climate of – not a cocoon, but a less pressurised environment. They enjoyed the process, and I certainly know that Don Givens and Ray Houghton enjoyed that night!
But you were in Dublin every day. How did you handle it?
I knew when I took this job that it is a pressurised job. It is probably one of the most difficult jobs in Ireland, if you analyse it. But it’s not like you’re sitting at your desk with nothing to do except think about who’s going to be the manager. It is important, but I had so much else to do, and you always know at some stage there’s going to a manager appointed. I kept saying this – we hadn’t our first competitive game until next September, which is still six months away. We’ll have two friendlies in May and one in August and we’ll have the week down in the Algarve as well.
Was Steve Staunton’s lack of communication skills with the media a major part of his downfall?
Yeah. Steven would have been the first to say that the communication side wouldn’t be his strongest point. For sure, that was always going to be difficult with a hostile media and Bobby being around would have helped him. But had we done our stuff on the pitch, that would have answered any communications deficit.
It was said that you took all the credit for the appointment of Staunton and then appeared to wash your hands of it when it went wrong.
I’ll tell you what, if you go back to the Friday before Steve was appointed, I did a piece with Tony O’Donoghue on Six One News where I said that three people made this appointment. And on the Thursday we called the board meeting I said the same thing to Tony. So, I was consistent all along, but sometimes people like to pick out little cameos and try and aportion blame.
At what moment did you first realise that Steve’s appointment wasn’t going to work out?
It was attritional, wasn’t it? Even though we were in transition, some of the performances obviously didn’t match the public expectation. And I accept that. I mean, to lose 5-2 in Cyprus is a dreadful night; it wasn’t like it was 2-2 and you give away a late goal and lose 3-2. It was a poor performance. San Marino was a very difficult cherry to bite as well. You know, scraping out of there with a 2-1 win. The late goal against Slovakia. The defeat in Prague brought more negativity back into the system. I think by the time we were 1-0 down at home to Cyprus in the dying minutes, the public and the football members of our board probably felt that it had gone too far.
What was your reaction to the booing on the night of the Cyprus game?
Even when I was speaking to board members that night and the following day, it was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. When we called the board meeting for the following Tuesday, there was a certain inevitability about what was going to happen. I think everybody accepted that. The Cyprus game was a dreadful night. It was horrible to see people booing the Irish team, booing the Irish manager. It’s not nice, is it? It’s not nice to see people not get behind their country. I always got behind my country when I followed Ireland as a fan. I love watching Ireland play. I love following my country. I don’t think it’s right that you should whistle at, and boo at, your country.
Did you feel sorry for Steve?
I did. We did our best that night to make sure he was protected. I didn’t want him coming into a media scrum. We got a bit of stick for having the meeting of the board in a different hotel to where the press conference was held. I think that was right and proper. Steve Staunton deserved his dignity on that night.
He’s back in football now with Leeds...
It’s great that he got the job with Leeds. I really am thrilled. I wrote him a letter the other day to congratulate him. Oh, God, I did.
You could justifiably argue that Bobby Robson, a vastly experienced manager, getting sick dramatically changed things.
Bobby getting unwell, in the manner that he did, certainly didn’t help. We didn’t just appoint Steve Staunton on his own – we appointed him with Bobby Robson. But he was really ill during that period. He had cancer. And his loss was a real difficulty. Steven would accept that as well. Bobby’s played in World Cups, he’s managed England to a world cup semi-final – he’s top of the tree as well. Bobby is still energetic and – I was just talking to him on Sunday – he still wants to be involved in football. We are hoping to involve him in some role going forward in the FAI, a kind of ambassadorial role. That’s something we will certainly do.
Do you feel certain members of the media tried to scapegoat the FAI?
(Laughs) There have been a number of inaccuracies over the last couple of months. We’ve challenged those, and there have been a lot of things said in newspapers that were untrue.
Some of the stuff written about you was nasty. Did you feel like you’d become a whipping boy?
When you take this job, you know that that’s coming – it’s part of it. As Brian Barwick, who’s the chief executive of the English FA, once said to me, “When you read it, it might upset your breakfast, but it won’t upset your day!” When you are the head of the organisation, of course, you are the face of the organisation. But the FAI is a lot bigger than John Delaney. At times when you’ve got to answer on the major issues, you are the public face of the organisation – and that’s what you’re paid to do. You try and get your message out. It was difficult in the environment of not having a manager, but the positivity that’s been around the last couple of weeks since we appointed Trapattoni has been brilliant. It’s just like a shot in the arm. I was in Tipperary yesterday opening two pitches, and everybody was in great form because they see it as a new dawn for Irish football.
What do you make of the ‘blazers’ tag?
(Laughs) It’s a cheap shot, isn’t it? The days of the blazers are gone. We went up a leg recently – someone described us as the “suits”! That must be a positive step (laughs). It is well accepted among people within the game, or people who work with us, that we are a different organisation from a number of years ago. This is an executive-driven organisation now and we’ve got the right line between volunteer, amateur and professional staff.
The FAI has a difficult legacy to overcome, particularly when people think back to the South American fiasco or even Saipan.
Look, there’s legacy issues around the association. I accept that. Any major organisation in this country has legacy issues. But you don’t read much about that any more. We played 170 internationals last year at various levels. We played nine games in three different countries in one week. That takes huge organisation with physios, hotels, flights, doctors. Every team needs a similar type of preparation, and I’ve got to say that we do that really, really well. The senior players say to me that they’re treated better than they ever were before. But that’s the standard I would except. Players should be treated as professional athletes.
I suppose the whole Saipan experience really shook up the FAI?
What happened in Saipan was, basically, the manager fell out with the captain. But it allowed people in the organisation to look for change and demand change. The manager fell out with the captain but it exploded into – put it this way, I think Pakistan and India were nearly at war at the time and nobody really noticed. We had a 23-member board and a cumbersome committee structure, but we overhauled that. That has served the organisation really well on how it is ran today.
Several high-profile players have retired prematurely from international football recently. Is it simply a case of no longer having pride in wearing the green jersey?
Let me talk about the pride players have, playing for their country. Richard Dunne, Shay Given and Robbie Keane – they have pride. There is no doubt about that. What’s happening now is that it’s becoming a trend in international football to retire earlier, to concentrate on your club involvement, and maybe prolong your career. Maybe guys are looking at their family lives – because there is such a pressurised environment playing at top-level football – and international week is a time to spend with their families. We’ve always had a culture of fellas giving everything for their country, and that has been one of our edges. We’ve never really lost that. There have been days when maybe we didn’t play as well as we should, but I think everybody who wants to play for Ireland is passionate about it, more than most nations. I’m delighted that Stephen Ireland has announced that he wants to come back. But it will be Trapattoni’s decision whether he’s in the squad.
Did you make contact with Stephen Ireland?
No, no. That would never be my role. I would never see it that way. If you were asked by any manager, “Do you have a problem with a player coming?” the answer would have to be “absolutely not” – because you want your best players to be available. And we’ll see what happens with Steve Finnan and Andy O’Brien. I think they are things that the new manager will look at.
Eircom League players don’t really get selected for the national side.
We’re conscious of that. The under-21 set-up and the whole ‘B’ international set-up is set up to ensure that more Eircom League players come through – like, Roy O’Donovan and Joe Gamble played against Scotland. Would they be good enough to play for the senior team? I think for the foreseeable future, our best players are going to go to England or Scotland. That’s the tradition. The Damien Duffs, the Richard Dunnes, the Shay Givens, the Aiden McGeadys will always go to play at the highest level.
What do you think of the Premier League’s plans for a 39th game to be played in different countries?
I don’t think we’d be on for it. We are about developing domestic football and not about building the brand of the Premiership, even though we all like to watch the Premiership. A lot of our players play in the Premiership. FIFA, I think, have a problem with it and I don’t think Platini is behind it either. I’d be surprised if it comes to pass.
So the Eircom League will probably always play third fiddle to other European leagues and the GAA?
If the infrastructure and marketing and the profile can improve, it can be in a better place. Will it compete with the Premiership in England? That’s always going to be difficult, because geographically, we are very near the Premiership. It’s certainly in a better place than it was 12 months ago. It’s a slow burner. It’s a crawl, walk, run. The problem was that the 22 clubs ran the league on a self-regulation basis, which doesn’t work. We’ve taken it over and we had an extra 100,000 people come to the games last year through our clubs’ promotion officers getting the clubs deeper into the community. This year the clubs can only spend 65% of their turnover on wages, which means that the other 35% has to go into administration, youth development and infrastructure. Two years ago, I think the turnover of the clubs – I have to get these figures right now – was €11 million and the cost base was €15 million, so it couldn’t work. There was too much money being spent on wages and not enough on development.
What developments are happening with grassroots soccer?
We had only two development officers in Dublin when I took over three years ago – we have 21 today. We work very hard at grassroots development. This year we spent €15 million on grassroots football. We’ve got an infrastructural development unit in the association now with five people whose only job is to work full-time in improving infrastructure. We’ve got €50 million over the past three years from the Department of Sport to help us with that.
Will you be encouraging more females to get involved in the game?
It is very important to me that we get more women playing soccer. I’m a parent of twins, a boy and a girl, both five-and-half-years, and it’s important that she has the same right to play as he does. We hope to have 50,000 girls playing soccer by 2010 – and we are getting there.
Has the huge influx of immigrants into Ireland changed your thinking at all?
20% of the population by 2020 could be non-nationals – and we want to support the Polish and the Latvians and the Nigerians who want to play soccer. We have launched an inter-culturalism development programme with Paul McGrath. I firmly believe if you are building a house, get the foundations right and the chimney will take care of itself. Somebody said to me, ‘You can relax now, you’ve got a manager!’ And I said, ‘Not at all!’ (Laughs) You’ve got a staff of 173 and all the things I just outlined to you there in terms of driving on. And we’ve the stadium to build in Landsdowne Road as well. Over the longer haul, we have to ensure that we produce a conveyor belt of better players on a more consistent basis. If we achieve all those things, you can look back with satisfaction and say we developed the game like it was never developed before.
What other developments will help improve the Eircom League?
The highlight programme on RTÉ will promote the game. We will certainly look at increasing the prize bond from next year on. We moved it from €98,000 three years ago to €1.1million this year. That’s a big, big, big plus, a thousand per-cent increase. My own view is that the quality on the pitch has improved, but the running and regulation of clubs has to improve – and it is improving. But if we can get our crowds up year-on-year, get more revenue through the turnstiles, get more kids going to matches, get more live matches – which we’ve done with RTÉ and TV3 and Setanta – and get the highlights programme working well, and make the league sexier – that’s the objective. Our one-hour highlights programme on the Eircom league on RTÉ every Monday night is our Sunday Game in the GAA context.
What about the North and South leagues merging?
We already have an all-Ireland league in a sense, because we have the Setanta Cup. We sat down with the IFA in Zagreb in January at the UEFA congress, and it’s fair to say that the relationships have never been as good. We’ve looked at hosting the U21 European tournament together. Whether that’s a possibility or not will depend on the infrastructure – more in the north than in the south. The ideas floated a couple of months ago through Fintan Drury and Jim Roddy about an all-Ireland league are premature. That’s the feeling on both sides of the border. Over the next couple of years we should look at expanding the Setanta Cup to make it better, because there’s no doubt that it has been an outstanding success.
Will the leagues merge within the next decade?
I think there’s a possibility. But, you see, you can only do that when the climate is right. You can’t commandeer people into doing that. I’m a democrat. That’s only when the clubs and the IFA and FAI want to do it. Crawl, walk, run would be my approach. Only when everybody wants to move on with the concept of an all-Ireland league should it really be looked at in a pro-active way.
Again, would you have similar thoughts on a united Ireland national team?
Anything like that is inextricably linked to a political solution. There is no doubt about that.
What do you think about bringing back the tournaments amongst the so-called ‘home countries’ of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales?
England don’t want to do that. We had meetings with the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish and we agreed in principle, and we are now talking to various commercial and television partners. In the day of what we might term ‘meaningless friendlies’, if you can use those dates to accommodate a tournament of that nature, it would bring a bit of a competitive edge to it. It’s something that I would welcome. If it goes ahead, it is a 2009/2011/2013 thing. Maybe a six-year deal with three tournaments in the odd years.
Will a European cup final be hosted at the new stadium in Lansdowne Road?
A UEFA Cup final would be brilliant. We will host it in either 2011 or 2012 – we’ve been told that. It’s a question of which year, and we’d love to have it in 2011. That decision’s due next March.
In your opinion, who was the best ever Irish footballer?
John Giles. He was a super footballer. He was ahead of his time. He brought Irish football forward in that period as player/manager. We mightn’t have qualified, but he made a lot of changes to bring it to the next level. I know that from speaking to people who played under him and also just knowing the man. We are good friends. He has a huge knowledge of the game that people should listen to.
Who do you reckon was the best Irish manager?
It had to be Jack, in terms of achievement. I don’t think anybody can argue with that. European Championships; last eight in the World Cup; and last 16 in the 1994 World Cup. Beating England in Stuttgart; beating Italy in the Giants Stadium in 1994. They were just two magical days. Jack achieved more than any other Irish manager. Mick McCarthy hasn’t got the credit he deserves. He finished second twice, was beaten in the play-offs, and then put Holland out of a World Cup to qualify. And under really fraught circumstances, got us to the last 16 – and was only beaten on penalties by Spain.
I blame Roy Keane for that!
Will we ever see him as Ireland manager?
He’s with Sunderland at the moment. He’s contracted there. If he gets on with managing Sunderland, we’ll get on with managing Ireland (laughs). He should stick to his job. We don’t comment on some of the players he’s bought or where they stand in the division or how they have played.
I’d like to ask you about Brian Kerr and his tenure as Ireland manager…
First of all, Brian’s contract was finished and just wasn’t renewed. Now, we have a confidentially agreement in place with Brian since he’s left, and I don’t comment on those aspects. He may want to, but I certainly won’t.
Your nickname is apparently Lego man!
No, Dela was my nickname in school. I never heard that (laughs).
Apparently it’s because your haircut is similar in style to that of a Lego man! I think it’s funny.
Not to me! But it could be worse! There’s been others about! (Laughs) I got the hair cut recently, so they’ll have to change the nickname now. It was Dela when I was a kid and that’s what they still call me in Tipperary where I grew up. It’s an abbreviation for Delaney.