Daniel McDonnell: 'The inside story on the biggest own goal in FAI history'

A decade ago this month, a paragraph in the Meath & District League notes in the Herald’s ‘Striker’ told a story.

Gerry Gorman, the head of what has now morphed into the North East Football League, wrote that a meeting was set for December 8 where members of the FAI would be in attendance to outline the “latest attractive offers exclusively available to clubs who sign up for Vantage Club tickets”.

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The signs of the FAI’s impending financial crisis were visible in the most obscure places.

A year earlier, John Delaney had famously launched the premium ticket scheme which was supposed to pay for the FAI’s share of the Aviva Stadium by speaking of how he only needed to tap into a small percentage of Ireland’s 33,000 millionaires to comfortably fill the 10,000 seats at prices ranging from €1,200 to €3,200 per year. “We’ll get it done,” he declared, confidently,

There was no mention of a vision that would involve roadshows urging clubs in the “football family” to dip into the coffers and buy a couple.

Tapping

A team hired by International Stadia Group (ISG) had been tasked with tapping up the high rollers to pay money up front for exclusive packages.

Plans included a spend on posting Ireland jerseys to the country’s top 100 chief executives with their name and the number 12 on the back, thus suggesting they could be the team’s twelfth man or woman.

This charm offensive did not pay off and as the recession hit and the suggestion of cutting prices was dismissed in favour of a move to monthly direct debits, ISG reps found themselves at gigs like Punchestown, Top Gear and Toys 4 Big Boys exhibitions in a vain attempt to find buyers.

Desperation set in, the FAI took the project in-house. You will do well to find a senior FAI employee from that period that wasn’t told to develop a sideline in ticket sales and draw up lists of prospective clients. Regular updates were sought. They all clocked up miles on the roadshows aimed at selling the prawn sandwich seats to the grassroots on the basis they could use them to fund-raise. Consistency in prices had gone out the window as a la carte discounts were offered.

Ahead of the stadium opening, this newspaper spoke with a number of sources engaged in the process, who detailed the catastrophe which was unfolding. Crucially, we obtained updated sales figures.

It was pencilled in for the front page news piece on September 9 in 2010 but events threw it into a best supporting role. A picture of empty seats for the competitive opener with Andorra two days previously ran above the text of a lead which screamed that the ‘lending days are over for Anglo’.

FAI woes were a sideshow to this tale of Ireland’s toxic debts. But there was room inside the newspaper to get the basic point across:

“Irish soccer’s governing body is facing a crisis over the disastrous sale of premium tickets for the new Aviva Stadium.

The FAI is millions of euro in the red after it failed to sell half of the 10-year tickets it planned to use to cover its massive borrowings.

And today’s revelations will heap further pressure on chief executive John Delaney, who has continually denied the extent of the ticketing fiasco.

Mr Delaney and his board gave the green light for the association to take out massive loans to fund its €74m commitment towards the renovation of Lansdowne Road. It intended to cover the repayment from the sale of 10,400 premium-level ‘Vantage Club’ seats.

At the launch of the Vantage project in September 2008, Mr Delaney said the association needed to sell 60 per cent of the seats to reach break-even point.

However, figures seen by the ‘Irish Independent’ reveal that ISG, a third-party company commissioned by the FAI to sell the seats over two years, had allocated just 4,077 seats when they wound down their association at the end of last month.

Some 939 of the 4,077 Vantage seats have been allocated to existing 10-year ticket holders, many of whom are from financial institutions who haven’t paid a cent since the Vantage Club project was launched in 2008. They will not decide whether or not to renew their tickets until 2014 or 2016.

The figure of 4,077 seats also contains scores of cancelled orders. These include people who were sent out direct-debit forms more than a year ago and have chosen not to return them and clients and fans who informed the ticket sales team they would not be making further payments.”

Our coverage of the story ran over several days, breaking down the sales figures further. The FAI had claimed that 6,300 tickets were ‘allocated’, which is very different from saying they were ‘sold’, while 2,000 were set aside for sponsors Three as part of their deal.

Fresh sales were fewer than 3,000, and with a common discount of 33 per cent for the cheapest seats, it was blindingly obvious that the FAI were miles off the 60 per cent (of full price) break-even target – never mind the 100 per cent vision that, long term, would make the Aviva represent land flowing with milk and honey.

At the AGM a month earlier, Delaney tackled negative commentary around the 6,300 tally in a tetchy briefing.

“You can use whatever language you like,” he said, when pressed on whether this amounted to actual sales. “We’ve got 3,700, a little more, left to sell. We’ll make sure they’re sold.”

Our information laid out the where things really stood. No legal letters were ever received.

Naively, on the eve of production, this reporter sent a text to a colleague who was broadly aware of what was coming. “Bomb dropped,” was the two-word message.

That was a wildly optimistic prediction. Yes, the story caused a bit of a stir, but there was no explosion. Perhaps it suffered because it was only laying out a scenario that was almost certainly about to unfold. The origins of the Titanic’s demise only became of real public interest when it hit the iceberg.

Some newspapers and broadcast outlets followed up on the story. Some didn’t.

Honorary treasurer Eddie Murray was available for comment and dismissed the yarn by complaining about media coverage. He was a natural port of call, given his title, but we were years away from finding out that he didn’t know how many bank accounts the FAI had.

A piece in that weekend’s Sunday Independent featured some strong quotes and information attributed to FAI sources. We were told that Delaney had only got more involved in the project after it became clear the ISG sales plan wasn’t working.

“Privately, the FAI also wonder about the time that has been given over to the coverage of their ticket sales,” read one section. “There is a paranoia within the association which doesn’t mean there isn’t an agenda.”

Political reaction was non-existent. FAI Council members went to ground, although a handful admitted concerns once they didn’t have to go on the record about them.

But in the main, there was clearly a willingness to take the Abbotstown explanation at face value. The initial piece did generate a press release that was widely reported, a missive that said “claims made in this morning’s Irish Independent about a ticket fiasco are unfounded”.

It went on to deal with another crucial detail by asserting that the board had never rejected a €75m offer from a third party to bear all the risk from the premium tickets, even though a quote from president David Blood gave weight to that angle. The wordplay around this particular subject was always interesting; the FAI could be heavy-handed in their denial of thorny subjects but not in this instance. Senior sources from that era remain adamant that the option was there at the start of the whole process but the FAI hierarchy opted against pursuing it.

Did it formally go before the board? What constituted a board decision? One must wonder considering we’re still trying to find out the origins of a statement from March this year – in response to the ‘Sunday Times’ exposé – which said the board were fully aware of Delaney’s €100,000 loan to his employer.

The riposte finished on a high note, proclaiming that the FAI “has put in place detailed business plans that will see it debt-free by 2020, while continuing to fund the development and growth of the sport at grassroots”.

Let the good times roll, in other words. The poor souls who actually paid full whack for their seats had more reason to be aggrieved as the Euro 2012 campaign progressed, with the presence of day trippers in their area devaluing their tickets. There were countless tales of freebies being distributed to fill up the venue, with official attendance figures frequently raising eyebrows.

Away from home, Delaney’s popularity soared. A month after Andorra, he was carried shoulder high down a train platform in Slovakia.

This set the tone for the years that followed with media questions around stadium finance dismissed as negativity. Younger scribes were sniffily asked if they knew what a mortgage entailed.

Adamant

Delaney was disappointed by former allies who had played a part in his rise and then continued to justify that support by insisting that he almost underwent some kind of personality transplant.

He had higher-profile commentators on board with his message with Eamon Dunphy hailing the financial acumen evident in Aviva debt deals.

Pay cuts and austerity measures were attributed to the economic climate and the price of a bright new home. Come 2014, there was little mention of the bulk of the 939 10-year ticket holders from the old Lansdowne that were supposed to renew.

That was hardly surprising given the only meaningful game in that calendar year was against Gibraltar, further evidence of the lunacy of the original prices.

The IRFU had sold all of their seats at €1,500 per year with a consistent schedule a given.

With screaming children often the main soundtrack, the pretence that the ‘Vantage Club’ was a place of “privileged access” had long since perished. This should have been a source of embarrassment for the board and the executives entrusted with the biggest commercial decision in the FAI’s history.

Instead, Delaney was awarded the contract of a lifetime, richly rewarded by an Association that will, in a very different way, be forever in his debt.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? THE FAI’S TOP BRASS FROM 2008-2010

John Delaney

The CEO signed a lucrative contract extension in 2014 with loyalty and pension entitlements making it a €3m package. Departed the FAI in September after a year of crisis and secured a settlement of €462,000.

Michael Cody

The honorary secretary’s term was extended and a tweak in age limits appeared to pave the way for a limitless stay. But he resigned from the board in April in the aftermath of the €100,000 loan controversy.

Eddie Murray

The long-serving honorary treasurer was closely linked with Cody and also resigned from the board in April shortly after his appearance before the Oireachtas Committee.

Mark O’Leary

The head of finance left his post in August 2010 after a five-year stint and went on to work for Glanbia and Open Hydro – currently chief finance officer with Calor Ireland.

Peter Sherrard

The FAI’s director of communications graduated to a role of head of operations before leaving the Association. He is now CEO of the Olympic Federation of Ireland.

Stephen Driver

The HR director, an ex-League of Ireland player, was also involved in the roadshow and his role in the FAI would increase in the years that followed. He is now the head of advocacy with  IBEC.

Noel Mooney

The head of League of Ireland marketing was also drawn into the sales process. He left for UEFA where he has steadily climbed the ranks but returned to the FAI this year for a six-month secondment.

Pádraig Smith

The Meathman was a real success story from that era. As the Compliance Officer of the FAI, he was thrust into the Aviva story by being sent with Mooney to try and negotiate for a friendly with Barcelona at the venue.

He was then handed the reins of finance after O’Leary departed and then graduated to UEFA but his career went in another direction when he secured a role on the technical staff at MLS side Colorado Rapids.

He has moved up the ranks to become their Executive Vice President and General Manager, overseeing all operations.

Read more: Final remaining FAI board member from the Delaney era resigns

Read more: Ewan MacKenna: ‘John Delaney was never, ever alone in all of this’

Read more: ‘The integrity of the game is in tatters’ – Niall Quinn on what needs to happen next in the FAI crisis

Read more: Daniel McDonnell: ‘Plight of free agents shines light on cost of FAI’s mess’

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