FAI spent their morning apologising and explaining a joke, making a bad situation worse

Jonathan Hill will most likely survive what was ultimately a small scandal with no real consequence other than making the association look embarrassingly clueless and badly governed

You don’t want to start with an apology, really. Not great. Tony Keohane, the fresh-meat Football Association of Ireland (FAI) chairman who was only elected just before Christmas, wasn’t scheduled to make an opening statement to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on various financial matters. But like an errant husband landing home with petrol station flowers, he hurried to try and soften the blow anyway.

“Look, we’re extremely sorry for sending material in so late last night,” Keohane said. “That was due to the fact that we were working through some advice and to enable us to give you as much information as possible. I hope you accept our apology for that. It was in no way meant to be disrespectful to you.”

Well now. The PAC could reasonably have wondered in response what it might have looked like if the FAI had been trying to be disrespectful to them. As Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe pointed out, the committee ended up with just 45 minutes to sift through an extensive email dump in advance of the meeting. And even then, some of it was so heavily redacted it looked like a sackful of Barbarians jerseys.

Indeed, one seemingly quite significant email put a series of thick black lines through everything except the email addresses of CEO Jonathan Hill and former finance director Alex O’Connell. They even, in their wisdom, redacted the FAI’s social media channels – albeit they kept the Facebook and Twitter logos intact so you can do your own sleuthing on that score.


Thing is, if you start with an apology, you better make sure the only way is up from there. But of course, this is the FAI we’re talking about. And reader, this is going to shock you now – the only way was not up.

First off, the joke. We weren’t five minutes into the questioning from McAuliffe before it emerged that the whole problem with Hill’s salary issue apparently came about because of a throwaway gag in an email. A junior staffer got onto Hill about converting unused holidays into cash and at the end of his reply signing off on the idea, the CEO seemingly wrote: “Can you negotiate the same for me please?!”

That was it. That was, by Hill’s account, where all this started. A feeble joke with a subordinate, a David Brent-style attempt at faux-solidarity. Never mind that in the course of later questioning, it turned out that the cash Hill got in lieu of 12 days’ holidays in 2022 amounted to around €11,500. So basically, a bit of Stick-It-To-The-Man banter from a CEO earning the guts of a grand a day.

Anyway, no harm no foul in that, in and of itself. Except that somehow, this turned out to be The Little Joke That Could. Without Hill knowing a thing about it, the joke travelled all the way across the desks of the senior officers in the FAI – the then chairman, the then finance director, the people and culture department – and next thing you know, some months down the line, Hill got paid. Sadly for him, it meant his salary for 2022 leapfrogged that of the government secretary general against which he is supposed to be benchmarked. And so here we are.

In the pantheon of FAI cock-ups, this one admittedly lacks a certain glamour. Not only is the money pretty small in the scheme of things, it has already been paid back. No grassroots scheme got nixed because of it, there was no real consequence to the whole thing beyond embarrassment.

And even if Hill’s version of events strain credibility somewhat (a joke, seriously?) the board of the FAI is standing over it. There was a slight whiff of jeopardy in proceedings soon after when McAuliffe turned to FAI president Paul Cooke and asked if he had confidence in Hill and Cooke would only say he had confidence in the leadership team. Pressed four times to express confidence in his CEO, Cooke couldn’t quite get that far and instead said that his “confidence had been challenged by events”.

Had Keohane followed suit when McAuliffe immediately popped the question in his direction, it could have been curtains. As it was, the chairman said he had confidence in the CEO because of all the great things the FAI had done to itself since the bad old days. And on we went.

But the hits kept coming. The PAC chairman Brian Stanley was particularly exercised by the quality of the submissions from the FAI. He held up one of the redacted emails with disgust, as if it was an old sock he’d found behind a school radiator. “This is just not acceptable. We get many redacted letters in here. But in my time here, I’ve never seen a letter like that.”

This is the thing. Even when the FAI scandals are small in nature, they are big in impact. It is a basic requirement for any sporting body to have a reputation for being good at governing their sport. When the chap in charge of the government body overseeing the spending of taxpayer money is losing patience with you, you look like fools.

It ripples out, too. Una May, the CEO of Sport Ireland, is usually a decent enough performer at these committee hearings. But she had a bad day here, twice getting caught in the crossfire and not seeming to know how to get out of the way of it.

When Fianna Fáil TD James O’Connor pressed her on why a portion of Covid funding appeared to have been spent on FAI debt, she faffed for a bit about terms and conditions before trying to deflect to her finance chap. When Stanley reminded her that the request for the FAI emails went through Sport Ireland and asked her if she was happy with what had transpired here this morning, she responded with a feeble: “Can I just clarify, happy in what way?”

Ultimately though – and not for the first or last time – the greatest harm done was to the FAI itself. There was one item on the agenda for the meeting that they were keen to talk to the Government about – the proposal to find a way to distribute more betting tax to other sports, including soccer. This will be a key building block to securing revenue streams now and into the future, if it ever comes to pass.

But there wasn’t time to get to it. They spent their time apologising and explaining a joke instead.

Can’t get much more FAI than that.