Despite grabbing public interest with such force it is currently keeping even the mighty Midas that is Richard Osman off the top of the Irish bestsellers list, on the face of it there is no earthly reason why a book written on the deathly dull subject of football administration should be of particular interest to any right-thinking human being. And yet, here we are.
Little more than a fortnight after its release, Champagne Football: The Rise and Fall of John Delaney and the Football Association of Ireland bestrides the literary charts, already heading for its third print run due to the kind of popular demand that would make a boy wizard blush. Who knew the excruciating and usually tedious minutiae of national sports governance could make for such grim, compelling and often sidesplittingly hilarious reading?
Irish football fans have long had their suspicions but had to wait for proof. They owe a debt of gratitude to the Sunday Times journalists Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, who selflessly volunteered to analyse forensically the goings-on of an organisation whose internal machinations were traditionally shrouded in a veil of almost Masonic secrecy until a series of jaw-dropping exclusives published by the Irish edition of their newspaper last year.
With the help of at least one whistleblower and a joint work ethic that seems to have bordered on the psychotic, our intrepid duo left no stone unturned in revealing mismanagement and incompetence on a truly epic scale, featuring the kind of financial chicanery that would have been genuinely amusing had it not cost so many hardworking foot soldiers toiling at the coalface of Irish football administration their livelihoods. At its heart was one man: John Delaney.
The handsomely remunerated and self-aggrandising public face of Irish football for 15 years, the former FAI boss was last summer dragged kicking and screaming from a personal fiefdom that would eventually require a government bailout to survive. His now shredded legacy will live on for decades as football in the Republic of Ireland struggles to recover from the often ludicrous excesses of his reign.
Long before the hastily convened hearing last March that led to Delaney failing in his attempt to obtain a high court injunction preventing Tighe and his paper reporting that he had lent the FAI £100,000 of his own money to cover a cashflow shortage, the chief executive revelled in a kind of celebrity status not generally enjoyed by middle-aged men tasked with overseeing the apparently mundane day to day running of a sports governing body.
A chat-show and social-diary staple who lived an ostentatious champagne lifestyle on a company budget that, it turned out, barely stretched to lemonade, his annual salary of €360,000 had been a frequent national talking point even before revelations that his employers had been paying the rent on his home to the tune of €3,000 per month at a time when far less well remunerated FAI employees were forced to take substantial pay cuts or risk losing their jobs.
Indeed, some of those minions may well have been among the FAI staff who were tasked with organising Delaney’s infamous 50th birthday party. A lavish James Bond-themed event, it cost the association more than €80,000, only €50,000 of which was repaid by the guest of honour. It was chump change for a man later revealed by a report commissioned by the Irish government to have personally benefited from up to €1m in “excess” spending on top of his salary in his final five years in charge of the FAI.
Delaney’s fondness for a night out was no secret. During the Republic of Ireland’s disastrous Euro 2012 campaign in Poland, he famously lost his shoes and socks while being carried shoulder high to his hotel in an apparent state of dishevelment by fans in the resort of Sopot. According to one of his former colleagues, he later threatened to “bring down the FAI” when it was suggested to him that such carry-on was behaviour unbecoming of a senior sports administrator.
On another occasion, Delaney threatened to take action against the Guardian if they reported it was he who had been surreptitiously recorded singing an IRA ballad in a Dublin pub following an Ireland game at the Aviva Stadium. Soon afterwards, in the face of irrefutable evidence, he admitted he had done exactly that. “When you sing a song like that you don’t believe in every word that is in the song,” he explained.
Indeed, it was the refurbishment of the stadium formerly known as Lansdowne Road that Delaney regularly cited as a monument to his own ability to take care of business that would ultimately prove his undoing. A joint venture between the Irish Rugby Football Union and the FAI, Delaney decided to raise the funds for his organisation’s share of the tab with a ludicrously ambitious and over-priced Vantage Club 10-year ticket scheme that was launched just as Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world went into financial meltdown.
In the face of appalling sales that would ultimately leave the FAI coffers more bare than Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, our hero elected to ignore his mistake and repeatedly insisted all was well even when he was reduced to writing that famous cheque just to keep the organisation solvent in the wake of what Champagne Football reveals was his own almost heroic disregard for the bottom line.
He has since left the FAI, drummed out after leaving them on their knees begging for outside help with staggering net liabilities of €55m, including the €462,000 he received in a severance package. He is regularly lampooned in Irish media circles as “the gift that keeps on giving” but the quite astonishing book chronicling his reign at the FAI reveals, as one wag put it, that he also kept on taking.