By Stephen Barry
Former FAI chief executive Bernard O’Byrne has predicted at least five years of austerity are in store for the troubled Association.
The FAI’s accounts revealed debts of €55m, with Sports Minister Shane Ross saying they’re kept running “on life support from UEFA”.
O’Byrne says the cutbacks will hit hardest at grassroots level, with grants to clubs and development officers across the country expected to be adversely affected.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge. Something is going to have to be done in relation to the debt and usually that means jobs cuts, it means holding back of grants, it means less grants. It’s probably a period of austerity for at least five years,” he told RTÉ News.
“It’s truly heartbreaking for the thousands and thousands of people who play and are involved in football that this is what the hierarchy has been overseeing for the past 10, 12, 14 years. And it must also be heartbreaking for almost 200 employees and their families coming up to Christmas.
“I think any rescue package or new strategy has to involve swingeing cuts there, which is not a nice prospect.
The grants will have to dry up or be postponed or withheld. €1,000 to a club can mean so much, new dressing rooms or whatever, but that’s all going to dry up.
“If there are cuts in staff, they’re likely to come in the development area. There are over 100 development officers around the country and if they’re cut back, the effects will be seen quite quickly.”
O’Byrne believes the Association has to, and will, be rescued due to the scale of football in Ireland.
“The FAI will be rescued. It’s the most played sport in the country, bar none. I think if good people join and good appointments are made, this is rescuable but it’s going to be a big job.
“It’ll probably take at least five years to get back on an even keel but it has to be done because it is an important sport.”
Minister Ross said the government’s €2.9m annual funding to the FAI won’t be restored until “real reform” takes place.
He referred to the €55m debt figure as “horrifying, very scary, and a terrible reflection of the state of affairs the FAI is in”.
“I welcome the resignation, or declared resignation, of [FAI President] Donal Conway. I’m sorry it didn’t happen a little earlier. It’s imperative the FAI now recognises, and I think it’s beginning to recognise, the fact that it’s time to clear out the old guard and clear it out completely,” he said.
“It looks to me as if they’re on life support from UEFA. That’s a situation which obviously can’t go on forever.
“They’ve got to appoint the independent directors, they’ve got to appoint a completely independent new chief executive, and the resignation of Donal Conway will open the way for a new independent chairman.
Today is rock bottom. It’s really an unthinkable situation but let’s hope it’s the beginning of something which means real reform in the FAI.
“It just fulfilled our worst fears and I think we are going to be paying for it for a long time.”
Minister Ross said it’s too soon for a potential bailout for the FAI to be considered.
“It’s much too early to even contemplate anything like that. The one thing that the government is certainly not going to be [doing is] pouring money down a black hole.
“You’ve got a €55m debt. We don’t know how it arose, we don’t know how it could possibly have arisen. I don’t think anyone would expect us to come in and fund a black hole like that because we might be pouring good money after bad.
“What I’d say is the government is very, very keen to resume the funding, the €2.9m to the FAI, which we’ve withdrawn, because we want to see football supported.”
Sinn Féin sports spokesperson Jonathan O’Brien said: “If there are to be job losses at the Association, then it needs to begin with those who are responsible for this mess rather than those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to promote Irish football every day.”