Tuesday, December 03, 2019

By John Fallon

The Football Association of Ireland are prepared to defy Sports Minister Shane Ross by appointing a new chief executive without his imprimatur. Within 24 hours of John Foley withdrawing his candidature for the role on an interim basis due to a lukewarm response by Ross, the FAI installed Paul Cooke to the vacancy.

Cooke’s official title is “executive lead” but in reality he’s operating the function of a CEO, albeit on an unpaid basis. Ross was not consulted before the announcement.

The Waterfordman had barely started into his core duties of addressing concerned staff at Abbotstown when Ross and fellow minister Brendan Griffin issued a statement in keeping with the frosty conditions prevailing across the country this week.

“The ministers note media reports regarding the appointment of Paul Cooke as executive lead at the FAI,” it read.

“As has been stated repeatedly, Ministers Ross and Griffin believe the most urgent priorities for the FAI should be the appointment of the four independent directors, the independent Chairperson, and the filling of the CEO vacancy, whether on an interim or full time basis.

“Various stakeholders will continue to be concerned until such time as the board and the executive are led by completely independent people without any prior or present involvement with the FAI.

“We look forward to an early appointment of an independent CEO following a thorough process. Government funding cannot be restored until such independent directors and an independent CEO are in place.”

It was the latest intervention to cause bewilderment within FAI quarters. In the first instance, anyone with a basic familiarity with the history of Irish football would realise that Cooke was a long-standing critic, rather than cheerleader, of the previous FAI regime.

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As a qualified chartered accountant, back at the 2009 AGM in Monaghan he was a voice in the wilderness standing on his feet directing queries to the top table.

Both chief executive John Delaney and secretary Michael Cody refused to address Cooke’s question about a €5m outlay in relation to the Lansdowne Road redevelopment.

For an association spouting on about openness and transparency, they cited the catch-all ‘financially sensitive information’ as a defence in refusing to reveal any details of the transaction.

It would be several years later when a media investigation uncovered that the fee was a penalty imposed by Goldman Sachs for a botched deal on offloading the entire quota of 10,000 premium tickets.

Cooke continued to probe as the repercussions of the disastrous Vantage Club scheme triggered swingeing cutbacks across all strands of football.

When he contributed to an 2013 RTÉ documentary on the parlous state of the FAI finances, disciplinary charges followed. He was prevented from asking questions at further FAI AGMs as his club Waterford were barred from attending because of, ironically, arrears on their registration fees.

It was only after Delaney’s demise that Cooke was welcomed back into the FAI. After being elected as Vice-President at the AGM in July, he said:

The very fact that I’m sitting here today shows that major changes are afoot in Irish football.

Ross’s decision to highlight the absence of independent directors is another own-goal as it is the government agency, Sport Ireland, overseeing the recruitment process.

As of today, the FAI had not been provided with any of the four candidates to enable them complete their new 12-person board. Cooke will shortly quit that board as he’s become part of the full-time administration but will still attend as a non-voting member. He will work mainly with the new independent chairperson once they he or she is appointed.

Cooke’s expertise in finance will be crucial as the FAI seek to emerge from the turbulence. The accounts for 2018 are due to be released tomorrow, detailing the extent of their liabilities, which could be soaring towards €60m.

One option for alleviating that debt pile, namely selling their stake in the Lansdowne Road stadium, has been steadfastly ruled out.

As a rental fee of €500,000 per match would apply, the suggestion to explore the possibility from Uefa was dismissed by the board. Tough decision beckon but cashing on the family silver doesn’t form part of the business plan.

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