Utter nonsense or legitimate protest? Pundits clash over Ireland fans’ tennis-ball protest

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Pundits clashed over fans’ tennis-ball protest during Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Georgia last night.

Some supporters threw tennis balls onto the pitch after 33 minutes of play in protest at former CEO, now Executive Vice-President, John Delaney’s running of the FAI, resulting in a two-minute delay before the game restarted with Conor Hourihane’s winning goal from a free kick.

The timing of the protest was an apparent reference to Delaney’s request for Ireland to be the 33rd team at the 2010 World Cup in the wake of Thierry Henry’s handball.

On RTÉ’s live coverage, Damien Duff blamed the fans’ actions for allowing Georgia the time to come close to an equaliser, although Richie Sadlier dismissed this. Duff and Ronnie Whelan both branded the protest “ridiculous”.

“It’s the only time a tennis ball has ever made me angry,” said Duff. “It added on three needless minutes that they nearly scored off, simple as that. We’re talking about something when we should be talking about this [Conor Hourihane’s goal].

“This is world class quality. If Messi does that tonight it goes viral on Twitter. What’s viral on Twitter for us tonight is tennis balls.”

He said earlier: “I think it’s ridiculous. Where they [Georgia] nearly scored is three minutes in [to injury time], there were four minutes added on, and that was because of the tennis balls.

“For me, Georgia nearly scored because of our CEO.

“Utter nonsense, the fans throwing them on for me. They can protest somewhere else.”

Sadlier countered this, saying: “It is a sign of how upset they are, how disgruntled they are, that they would show up here and do that but it is clear why they do it. They could do it in their back garden tomorrow but no one would see it.”

He later expanded on their reasons for the protest and the questions they want to see answered.

“To understand the context of some of their frustrations, we know for the last number of years they’ve had banners taken from them as they go into home and away grounds, so they can’t express themselves in that way at all,” he said.

“To Duffer’s point it added three minutes, it didn’t. It just delayed the restart of the game three minutes.

“There’s no point in us talking just about the tennis balls, there’s lots of very legitimate reasons for it.

“Even this weekend, we’d the Taoiseach asking for some clarity, we had SIPTU weigh in on behalf of their members, employees in the FAI wondering why at the same time when they were being asked to take a 10-15% wage cut, the board were approving … rent to the CEO.

“The board still hasn’t come out and explained fully why their solution to a cash-flow problem – which they still haven’t explained why they had it – was to ask an employee for a personal loan.

“Sport Ireland have also come out and asked why they weren’t told because they should’ve been.”

Whelan was scathing of the protest on co-commentary, dismissing it as it involved “50 or 60 or 70” balls.

He said: “It’s completely and utterly ridiculous. It’s been a very, very good first half from Ireland and it’s rewarded with balls thrown onto the pitch, and Ireland in a very good position with a free kick 20 yards out.

“Completely and utterly ridiculous.”

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