David Kelly: ‘Delaney’s cultivation of a personal cult has distanced himself from even his comrades’


David Kelly: ‘Delaney’s cultivation of a personal cult has distanced himself from even his comrades’

Desire to be front and centre a fatal flaw beside anonymous IRFU and GAA chiefs

John Delaney, FAI Executive Vice President (March 23rd, 2019). Member UEFA Executive Committee (since 2017). Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
John Delaney, FAI Executive Vice President (March 23rd, 2019). Member UEFA Executive Committee (since 2017). Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Last Wednesday, Health Minister Simon Harris was being grilled by a Dáil Committee, his leadership once more under the closest of scrutiny, his job under the severest of threat.

Some argue that his concealment from government colleagues of a near €400m over-run on an already over-budget Children’s Hospital construction – if it is indeed in the right place at all – should have cost him his job.

This is Ireland. He muddles on. The public will make up their own minds, deliver their own verdicts when the time comes.

A few doors down the corridors of intensely probing parliamentary power, another committee congregates, ostensibly to discuss a mere trifle – €100,000 – and its attendant influence on corporate governance.

The FAI are in the house but there is only one star in this chamber. The Irish public may make up their own minds on John Delaney, too. But that is a moot point. As Delaney makes his mute point, the reality is that it doesn’t matter what the Irish public thinks about him.

Delaney knows that and, even if his tactical acumen exposed little regard for democracy, the supine weakness of supposedly confederate colleagues, the ambition of remaining in situ for Ireland’s partial hosting of Euro 2020 is all that matters.

Tom Ryan, GAA Director-General (April 2018). Treasurer Faughs GAA (voluntary). Photo: Brendan Moran/SportsfileTom Ryan, GAA Director-General (April 2018). Treasurer Faughs GAA (voluntary). Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Tom Ryan, GAA Director-General (April 2018). Treasurer Faughs GAA (voluntary). Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Fergus O’Dowd’s laughable suggestion that the FAI slot in some regime change during lunch reflected the inadequacy of the exercise to which Delaney did not even deign to engage; no government in the world can forcibly effect such radical change.

This is Ireland. He muddles on. Only this time, even if the public make up their own minds, their verdicts will count for nothing.

Money, which got the FAI into this mess, will be the final arbiter, as sponsors begin to ramp up the pressure. For money talks louder than any voice.

Perhaps everything that has happened this week in Irish sport begins and ends with just who John Delaney is and just why everybody is talking about him and just why there are pictures of him all over the front pages.

His ubiquity transcends the FAI in a manner quite apart from that of his counterparts in the country’s two other major sporting organisations: Philip Browne of the IRFU and Tom Ryan of the GAA, two men who could breezily walk down Grafton Street this afternoon without receiving a second glance.


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Delaney’s ceaseless quest for celebrity – heartfelt demands for privacy delivered in the glossy pages of Sunday newspaper supplements – is quite at odds with the other men, synonymous with anonymity, content to undertake equally high-profile roles in a steadfastly understated manner.

To some arch critics, theirs is a status that seems to distance them from the common folk, in contrast to the thousands of visits to the grassroots Delaney devotedly depicts as a selfless task in engagement with the “football family”, his greatest friend.

Delaney’s cultivation of a personal cult, however, has distanced himself from even those comrades on Wednesday whose every awkward word was framed by his serene silence. He is above them all, now. Perhaps, even, above the rest of us, too.

Philip Browne, IRFU CEO 1998-Present. Chairman Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/SportsfilePhilip Browne, IRFU CEO 1998-Present. Chairman Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Philip Browne, IRFU CEO 1998-Present. Chairman Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

He gives the impression that, no more than he is the munificent godfather of the grassroots in Ireland, he is someone who has outgrown the land itself, as UEFA-land beckons the next colourful career chapter.

This was the underlying sense this week, of a man enmeshed in his sport, but beyond it too, elusive to not only his own organisation but his government, his people. His counterparts have more mundane existences; but no less immune to carping from the sidelines.

Take Joe Brolly’s excoriation of Ryan’s selection as DG, “the enemy of the GAA family”, “the invisible man.” “He doesn’t say anything,” said Brolly last year.

“He doesn’t lead. I feared very much that he was a bureaucrat who would simply continue to move down the path of elitism and commercialism.”


Brolly’s was not a lone voice; the Club Players’ Association has consistently railed against an association they believe to be “out of touch” with ordinary members.

Browne has received similar criticism from the lesser voices in his sport, the increasingly disenfranchised clubs, marooned from the mushrooming professionalism of the provincial and national sides, whose successes have muffled the margins.

The GAA and the IRFU have had their failures too; some of which, one might wonder, might have been more forcefully discharged had a powerful supremo like Delaney, owing to the obsequiousness of craven colleagues, been on point duty.

From the PR mess surrounding Liam Miller’s testimonial to the Newbridge farce, the stuttering handling of the Belfast rape trial fallout to a failed Rugby World Cup bid, the GAA and the IRFU have owned their far share of calamitous own goals.

Yet while all have prompted public outrage and some have caused internal disquiet, the organisational disrepute never threatened their leadership roles.

This is because, for all their faults, the leadership culture has never been predicated upon personality, rather policies; the latter may often seem objectionable but the issues are always divorced from the individual.

This, for too long, has not been the case with the FAI and Delaney and it is not necessary to indulge once more in the details where his colourful personal style met with his professional duties, even when they have earned the embrace of either drunken supporters or country clubs happy to name a ground after him.

This cult of personality, extending to annual, unquestioning validation at AGMs more redolent of Soviet-style communion, has secreted him from some of the questioning to which TDs attempted this week, even if their castration was procedural rather than ceremonial.

Within the IRFU and GAA, questions of corporate governance may also be questionable – female representation, in recent times, for one example – but the presiding principle is that leadership can be questioned.

If anything, the GAA is too unwieldy in its democratic structure, and their Central Council assumes much authority, controversially so if the Sky TV deal is taken as an example.

Like the IRFU in 2015, in the wake of a contentious AGM which prompted Browne to declare, “We have to have a governance that is fit for purpose”, the GAA is also undergoing a strategic review which will also encompass this issue, amongst others.

When Delaney assumed his role as CEO, he promised the same under government pressure but, although some elements of the ageing Genesis report were implemented, key points, which crucially would have subsumed his influence, were not.

All three bodies receive relatively minimal funding from Sport Ireland and none have escaped their gaze, notably Shane Ross’ threat of funding withdrawal during the Miller saga, while Browne (though not alone) has faced questions on female representation and alcohol sponsorship.


But their leadership has never been questioned in the manner that Delaney’s was so openly this week by politicians.

Browne’s length of service – he is in his 22nd year as CEO – has rarely been an issue. When Ryan succeeded Páraic Duffy last year, his predecessor’s words were notable.

“I personally feel that ten years is long enough in the role and that whatever you can do for the organisation if you haven’t done it by now it’s not likely you are going to do it in the future.”

Delaney seems intent on clinging on to power but the base upon which he has built it is crumbling. The bottom line does little to support him, either.

In 2006, GAA turnover at central level was approximately €30 million; by 2017 it had jumped to €65.6m. In 2007, IRFU turnover was €48m; by 2017, it was €85m. In 2007, FAI turnover was €45m; by 2017 it was €49m.

To put it another way, the turnover of the GAA and IRFU has increased by 119pc and 77pc respectively but just 9% for the FAI.

The convenient apparatus of an organisation ignorant to necessary reform no longer shields Delaney.

The power of personality may have helped before but it hinders him now; how he might wish now for the low, almost apologetic profile of people like Ryan and Browne.

For so long visible to so many, how he might crave invisibility now.

But it is all too late.

What once made John Delaney seem invincible might now prove to be his greatest weakness.

Next month, he is destined to replace Browne as the rotating chairman of an Aviva Stadium which has plunged the FAI into debt even though they will never ultimately own it.

A grimly ironic footnote. His voice may have been silenced but money will have the final word.


John Delaney

Age: 52

Current Role: FAI Executive Vice President (March 23rd, 2019). Member UEFA Executive Committee (since 2017).

Previous Role: FAI CEO 2005-2019. Honorary treasurer 2001-’04. Acting FAI CEO 2004-’05. Olympic Council of Ireland Second vice-president 2008-2016.

Salary: €280,000 (combined FAI and UEFA); Previous contract was worth €360,000, having been cut from €450,000. Expenses are undisclosed.

Family: Divorced from Emer, with whom he has 16-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Subsequently formed relationship with model Emma English.

Highs: Securing partial hosting of 2020 European Championships in Dublin.

Lows: Appointment of “world-class” manager Steve Staunton in 2006 was an unmitigated flop.

Background: Born in Waterford but grew up in Tipperary. Father Joe was an FAI Treasurer but was forced to resign in 1996 after an infamous ticketing scandal. A chartered accountant although he admitted he is not a member of Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Not a lot of people know that: Although spending his formative years in Waterford and Tipperary, he has been a life-long Kilkenny hurling fan.


Tom Ryan

Age: 48

Current Role: GAA Director-General (April 2018). Treasurer Faughs GAA (voluntary).

Previous Role: GAA Finance Director (January 2007-2018). National Finance Committee, Audit and Risk Committee, Management Committee.

Salary: Undisclosed but reportedly a basic of €150,000 but additional top-ups including pension benefits are likely to increase the sum.

Family: Married to Mairéad, they have three children, two boys and a girl, ranging in ages from 16 to 7.

Highs: Belatedly earned kudos for allowing Liam Miller testimonial to be held in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Lows: Delay in above one of several first-year lows, from ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ row to spats with the CPA and the usual round of sporadic on-field violence.

Background: Born in Carlow, attending former CBS school. Spent most of his life in Dublin. A chartered accountant and a member of Chartered Accountants Ireland. Was at Brown Thomas before joining GAA full-time. Lives in Terenure.

Not a lot of people know that: In his spare time, he is a cycling enthusiast.


Philip Browne

Age: 58

Current Role: IRFU CEO 1998-Present. Chairman Aviva Stadium.

Previous Role: IRFU Secretary 1995-’98. 1992-’95: Admin Officer.

Salary: Estimated €175,000.

Family: Married to Ann-Marie with two children.

Highs: Aviva Stadium opening in 2010.

Lows: Confident bid to host 2023 World Cup scuppered by France.

Background: Went to St Columba’s in Rathfarnham and High School, Rathgar. Formidable education includes a PhD, MSc and MBA. Worked at Austin Darragh’s Institute of Clinical Pharmacology and then Arthur Andersen before joining IRFU.

Not a lot of people know that: Rowed competitively for 10 years, winning many Irish and international rowing titles at club level and represented Ireland at two World Rowing Championships.

Irish Independent


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