It’s been a bad night, and something of a bad week for Eamon Dunphy. People have been wondering where he is at this pivotal moment in Irish soccer, he says.
John Delaney, whom Dunphy has alternately defended and attacked (but mostly, it must be said, defended), finds himself in the crosshairs of an Oireachtas committee. It will want to know why Delaney secretly loaned €100,000 of his own money to a body which, as a condition of receiving government funding, has to show its books are in order.
Beyond that, it seems a kind of breaking point for the public and the Boycie-like soccer tsar.
Just as Salome impatiently called for the head of John the Baptist, so now Irish soccer fans and commentators demand Delaney’s head. And online and in messages to Dunphy himself, they wonder where is the journalist who had a reputation for speaking truth to power, yet also often saw the bright side of Delaney’s controversial reign at the top of the sport.
The answer is: convalescing.
“I’ve had a heart operation,” Dunphy tells the Sunday Independent. “It’s an aneurysm that’s been there for about 15 or 20 years but they operated on it a few weeks ago. It’s serious but not life-threatening. I’m feeling rough and tender, I’m sore. I haven’t been able to do my podcasts.”
So, had his health been better, what would he have said about the unfolding situation with Delaney and the FAI?
“I think you have to look at the whole picture”, Dunphy begins. “The grassroots soccer people in this country have come out in support of Delaney. It’s extraordinary and very telling. In 13 years he turned up at over 2,000 events. In addition to that, Irish soccer now has a home; when Delaney took over, we were renting it from the IRFU. He and the FAI got caught because, just as that project was taking off, the crash came, but you can’t judge them too harshly for that.”
But was Delaney – on a salary of €360,000 for most of his reign as chief executive of the FAI – not obscenely overpaid, especially when taking into account the rag-and-bone facilities of professional Irish soccer and the paltry prize money?
“I’ve been critical of his salary,” Dunphy responds, “but he also brought a lot of money into the game. He managed to persuade Denis O’Brien to pony up the money to pay for the best coaches. They were paid massive salaries but at the time, they were the best money could buy. He was able to get the patronage of wealthy individuals like O’Brien and I approved of that. He went around the country and organised all-weather pitches in places like Kerry where that stuff was never there before. I went to my old soccer club in Drumcondra and saw him open a new pitch with dressing rooms. I thought it was amazing stuff.”
What about the League of Ireland, which Delaney once characterised as “a difficult child” and which continued to founder under his authority? “The problem with the League of Ireland is that nobody can f**king fix it, including John Delaney, and including Niall Quinn. [Quinn] wants to give each of the clubs €2m – that money will disappear like smoke, you might as well burn it. The League of Ireland has been the way it is forever, it has always been a bad joke, delinquent. It’s always been on the brink of collapse. The clubs are all autonomous.”
What of the terrible optics of the Ireland women players having to change in toilets and share tracksuits while Delaney had his rent paid by the FAI? “I’ve been critical of him for his pay and for the way women were treated, there should have been better equality,” Dunphy responds.
What did he think of Niall Quinn, who ruled himself out of the running to replace Delaney, saying the movement of positions within the top ranks of the FAI was a “charade”? “I wouldn’t be rushing to back Niall Quinn,” Dunphy growls. “It didn’t end very well for him at Sunderland.”
Perhaps Delaney’s worst sin was his treatment of journalists, Dunphy says. “The overall way he dealt with journalists – not allowing questions at the AGM, for example, not being accountable to the broader soccer community – was terrible. He accumulated too much power and anyone who does that, it leads to their downfall.”
There is no conspiracy of silence amongst the RTE soccer panellists, Dunphy insists. “I don’t think Ronnie Whelan or Damien Duff have anything to do with [Delaney],” he says. “I don’t know who set up John Giles’ foundation, I think Delaney is interlinked [with it] but John [Giles] has never hidden that. I have never accepted hospitality from Delaney. I know the guy, I haven’t spoken to him for years. I’ve tried to say there’s bad stuff here but there’s also very good stuff here. We’re not looking at some kind of ogre, he has a kind of love for the game, but he has too much power and has abused it.”
The protest, where fans threw tennis balls onto the pitch during the Ireland-Georgia game, could have been disastrous, Dunphy adds. “Ireland had a free kick when they threw the balls on and the three or four minutes that it took to clear the pitch of the tennis balls were added on at the end of the half. And only for a brilliant save in those minutes, we’d be 1-1. Any of the real football people would say you shouldn’t go there.”
Is former professional football player and current professional pundit Richie Sadlier not a real football person? (Dunphy made headlines when, in his column in The Star, he called Sadlier “an eejit’ for saying Ireland fans who threw tennis balls on the pitch at the Georgia game were “angry and disillusioned for very legitimate reasons”.)
“He is some kind of football person, but the only one I’ve seen support the activities of the other night,” Dunphy says.
“I think we need to look at RTE’s stance here too. If they think it’s ok to allow someone to say that it’s ok for people to throw things on to the pitch at the Aviva stadium, then they need to look at themselves.”
But in the context of Irish fans having anti-Delaney banners confiscated from them at games, and given that visibility is the whole point of protest, surely Sadlier had a point? Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that. “There is a sacred principle in football,” Dunphy begins. “It’s a principle that goes back to Jimmy Jones who was a Catholic from the North of Ireland, who was beaten to within an inch of his life by a Protestant crowd 60 or so years ago. You don’t bring those kinds of protests into the arena. Even a tennis ball – if a player went over on it in the wrong way, they could break an ankle. There were 40,000 people there, the players need to concentrate, Mick [McCarthy, the Ireland manager] needs the space to get on with his work. If you can throw tennis balls on a pitch, you can throw other things on a pitch and ultimately you can go onto the pitch yourself – and that is a path we don’t want to go down.”
Delaney is, on the face of it, losing a lot of the control he has exerted over the association for the past decade and a half, as well as his seat on the board. His biggest priority now is likely his position with Uefa, where his membership of the executive committee is dependent on his new role of ‘executive vice president’ with the FAI. “When a committee come for you, you’re in trouble,” Dunphy says. “He’s in a fight for his life: we’ll see how it plays out.”