Whenever the flames surrounding John Delaney’s ill-fated tenure began to rise, John O’Regan was always first on the scene to tackle the blaze, armed with nothing more than two lungs full of air.
We saw it numerous times over the past seven months. The secretary of the Kerry District League frequently appeared on radio and television to defend his stricken comrade, on one occasion going so far as to say that the embattled celebrity administrator should be “running the country”.
Now, following his resignation 10 days ago, the Delaney years are done. The fire fighting failed and all that remains is a charred pile of guff and empty promises.
Yet, in spite of everything, in spite of the litany of misconduct allegations, both pecuniary and moral, O’Regan still stands by his man. Speaking to the Irish Independent last weekend, the FAI Senior Council member once again reiterated his unwavering support for his long-time friend and associate.
“He’s done a fantastic job here in Kerry,” O’Regan said. “John Delaney was in the job for 14 or 15 years. He did mighty work for many, many years.
“I’m listening to people in the grassroots in Kerry and Limerick and all over. In youth soccer and junior soccer and schoolboy soccer. They have no problem with John Delaney. He’s done an awful lot for that side of the game. The people I have seen whingeing and moaning are the crowd in the League of Ireland.
“I can’t see what was done wrong to be honest.”
Frankly, that last line is staggering. Or at least it would be were it not so painfully predictable.
Let’s get this straight. As far as John O’Regan is concerned, John Delaney providing the FAI with a secret bridging loan of €100,000 due to the association having “insufficient funds” was not wrong.
Devising the Vantage Club premium ticketing scheme, a disastrous venture which left the association struggling to pay its share of the Aviva Stadium construction costs, was not wrong.
Accepting, on behalf of the FAI, a secret €5 million pay-off from FIFA over the Thierry Henry handball affair was not wrong.
Accepting a salary of €450,000 (later €360,000) at a time when FAI staff were being made redundant was not wrong.
Taking €36,000 a year to help pay for his rent (in addition to his salary) was not wrong.
Spending €40,000 on his company credit card over a six-month period, including €400 at Tommy Hilfiger and €226 on shirts from Thomas Pink, was not wrong.
The fact that this year the FAI, who Delaney said would be debt-free by 2020, needed financial assistance from UEFA just to avoid collapse was not wrong.
And now, even though the ex-CEO has been forced to quit on the back of all of these astonishing revelations, many of which came to light after some excellent journalism by Mark Tighe and The Sunday Times, O’Regan still “can’t see what was done wrong to be honest”.
Sticking by John Delaney at this stage of proceedings is dumbfounding and when the head of the Kerry District League continues to do so, it undoubtedly causes reputational damage to Kerry soccer.
Does O’Regan genuinely not see what Delaney has done wrong (which would be very concerning) or is he misusing his position and status to defend the indefensible (also very concerning)?
What makes this all the more confusing is the fact that for the first time in 15 years, backing John Delaney cannot in any way benefit the game in this part of the world – if it ever did at all.
Delaney is gone. He has returned his badges, both FAI and UEFA. He has turned in his green tie (though not the one he triumphantly tossed into the crowd in Moscow). He has handed over his shoes (though not the pair he had taken from his feet in Sopot, nor the ones he generously gifted to a needy “itinerant” child).
And, tearfully no doubt, he has even checked in his pride and joy: the novelty, over-sized company chequebook.
O’Regan’s words are problematic but what’s more worrying from my point of view is that his remarks are invariably met with silence. In terms of media coverage, I haven’t seen too many column inches dedicated to the secretary of the KDL or the things he has said.
When various league chairmen and boards around the country unilaterally backed Delaney in March, many clubs spoke out to say that they hadn’t been consulted. That hasn’t been the case in Kerry, despite the fact that virtually everyone I’ve spoken to disagrees with O’Regan’s sentiments entirely.
In fact, when I wrote about O’Regan and the KDL earlier this year, players at certain clubs were warned by their managers not to share, like or comment on my articles.
Why is that?
O’Regan wields a lot of power in Mounthawk Park. In addition to acting as league secretary, he is also fixtures secretary and joint treasurer. And if you were listening to Radio Kerry last Saturday evening, you would have heard the man who runs Kerry soccer assuming PRO duties too as he previewed the weekend’s junior soccer fixtures. In some instances, he even predicted who was going to win.
Allies will point to this omnipresence as evidence of O’Regan’s dedication, as well as proof of how hard it is to find volunteers to fill these roles.
Others, including former league officers and club officials, have claimed privately that in the KDL, it’s O’Regan’s way or the highway. If that is, indeed, the case, it seems as though many people have simply chosen the highway.
O’Regan’s disciples speak of all the hard work he has done for the KDL down through the decades and there’s no denying that over the course of his 44-year reign he has given up thousands of hours of his time.
As the son of a long-serving club official myself, and as someone who has served as PRO for my own GAA club, I know how thankless a job it is to volunteer for an amateur sport. Anyone who takes up a voluntary role within a club or sporting organisation is deserving of great credit, especially if they do it for a long period of time. That should go without saying.
But all the service in the world shouldn’t shield you from criticism if you get something wrong.
When you represent a club or a league, be it for four weeks or forty-four years, you have to be held accountable. O’Regan is answerable to the clubs, not the other way around.
Look at it this way: if GAA president John Horan did what John Delaney did, and Tim Murphy, the chairman of the Kerry County Board, came out and repeatedly backed him without asking the clubs for their opinions, would he get a free pass? No chance. The clubs and the media would be up in arms, and rightly so.
A profile piece by Mike Rice of The Kerryman dated January 2012 revealed that O’Regan “has been nicknamed ‘God’ by many of his friends in the world of soccer as he has made so many things happen at Mounthawk Park”. And it’s not just friends. Foes also seem to cast O’Regan in this divine light.
For many people within the Kerry soccer family, this raises a difficult question. How do you stand up to God?