Crisis Managers: In the latest of a series with the leaders of Ireland’s sporting organisations, FAI interim CEO Gary Owens, outlines what’s at stake for the infrastructure of football.
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At what moment did you realise this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

Professionally, we had got (FAI) Council approval for refinancing, which was significant for us. Effectively, we were looking to borrow 52 and a half million. And that was all approved on the same day the Taoiseach announced the lockdown. I had just signed off on a business plan that was virtually out of date instantly.

Personally, my two kids are grown up, so I couldn’t see them. I haven’t seen them since. I lost a good friend through the virus. And when you’re literally locked in at home, you say, God, this is very different. Back in 2007-2008, I had to let 300 people go in the financial services industry. It was a painful process. But this is radically different. It’s like the whole world stops.

Have you drawn on that experience in 2007?

Yes. Our business just collapsed overnight. You had to take significant measures. You learn a lot from that. There’s leadership required in terms of your own team. You need to be calm. You need to engage and communicate as much as you possibly can, and keep people informed. I learned a lot about what it was like for people to go through a traumatic experience.

What kind of financial implication do you anticipate for the FAI?

We’ve made projections that assume we don’t play any matches this year. The hit would be about €10 million. We’ve done a whole range of scenario testing. What happens if we get back on July 20 to what happens if we don’t play the matches in September. We’ve a lot riding on the last three months of the year. We’ve a lot of international matches, between the Nations League and the qualifier in Slovakia. So a lot of our projected income stream is coming from the last quarter. We still haven’t given up on that.

How have Government supports and direction helped in the crisis?

They have been excellent. Our doctor Alan Byrne is on a team that’s working with the HSE. I’m sitting on two steering groups with Sport Ireland and the Department. They’re very helpful, very valuable, very supportive.

We’ve been trying to understand what’s coming out of the HSE and how do we interpret it. How to get social distancing and contact sport to reconcile. What does that actually mean on July 20? And how do we make sure that we can come back playing with confidence. The big question is around how do we reduce the risk to acceptable levels for all the volunteers.

We’ve divided this between professional sport and amateur sport. On the professional side a lot is down to the cost. You’re putting in protocols around testing and making sure all the stakeholders — from players and managers, referees, anyone who’s looking after facilities — are all using the right protocols.

But it’s much more difficult to do that on the amateur side. We’ve been putting in a range of questions to the HSE through Sport Ireland, to see how we can get an acceptable level of risk so we can play football on an amateur basis.

It’s a very difficult question. At one extreme, you wait until the vaccine. There’s a lot of unknowns. We really welcomed the government’s five phases, because we didn’t have a roadmap. Once we got that it raised more questions. And I think we’re getting the answers.

Ultimately, we need to protect the sporting infrastructures that are there. You can’t let them collapse, because if you do it’s going to be a long journey back. It will come down to: 1, what’s an acceptable level of risk from a medical perspective, 2, how do we cope financially?

What’s the doomsday scenario?

I think if we have to wait for a vaccine. And there’s no certainty we will ever get there. If we conclude that’s the only way the sport can be played here, I think that is a bit of a doomsday because all the sporting infrastructure will just collapse.

Just talking about the three big sports; soccer, Gaelic and rugby. If we can’t operate, the implications for society are huge. The number of people who play every week, the number of volunteers involved, the benefits to society. The implications mentally and physically if we can’t do that. That needs to be taken into account in the risk assessment.

For me, no football until we find a vaccine which could be years away means both our professional and amateur football collapse.

GAA president John Horan has said he can’t see Gaelic games being played while social distancing is required. But are there nuances within that?

If you read all the different reports coming out, there is less evidence that anything is being transmitted outdoors. And that most of the transmissions are happening indoors.

We’ve been slow to make conclusions. We’re sitting behind the HSE and Uefa. They are the experts that will guide us in terms of what we have to do. And we’ll keep asking the questions as to how we get to a level of risk that’s acceptable to everybody. We have kept drilling that and trying to understand what the answer to that is.

But if you can’t reconcile social distancing from contact, and there’s no way we can manage it financially in terms of the protocols we have to put in place, then you’re back to doomsday. And I think we need to start thinking about what that means for society and for other health issues, mental health and all the associated illnesses.

Are there overseas models worth applying in Ireland?

Dr Alan Byrne has sat in all the overseas research. We’ve been watching Germany, Denmark, there is some stuff coming from Spain as well. As soon as they go back you will learn an awful lot about what the implications and protocols are. Unlike the GAA, we have international research. Even rugby is arguably only in eight or nine countries, realistically. While we are in every country in the world. All the research will be helpful.

How damaging would a ‘lost season’ be for the League of Ireland?

It would be damaging. The whole infrastructure is fragile enough. It doesn’t have a huge income stream already. It would be a long road to recovery. And if you compare it with other European leagues it would be a sad day if we’re the only ones who can’t finish their league.

We’re at the start of our season while lots of the others are determining if they can finish theirs. So if we have to give up after five matches it would be a sad day for us.

The two great unknowns are what is the cost of running matches behind closed doors and putting in place the medical protocols required. Our views are that restricting to two or three stadiums makes a lot more sense.

We can specialise around getting those stadiums fit and proper. That reduces the cost and takes away the risk from the clubs. You’re down to the cost of that and working out how we compensate for the lack of attendances. And then you’re looking to see if you can get support to keep the infrastructure together.

We’re reluctant to give up on it until we conclude that we just can’t do it.

How is morale across the organisation? Any message for members, officials, players?

I think the FAI, and sport generally, has done a great job over the last 10 weeks. Our grassroots teams and employees have been working on the Homeskills programme. We’ve had a venture with Spar to deliver to people that are vulnerable and cocooning. We had a joint venture with Down Syndrome Ireland, because charities are getting hit pretty hard.

The team has rallied very well. They are thinking outside the box to make sure they are active on the ground. They are all dying to get back but morale is as good as we can have given what’s going on. They are all looking for answers in relation to when can we get back and what do we say to our clubs and leagues and players.

We’ve been using Microsoft Teams to communicate and we’ll come back with a different attitude to flexibility in terms of working from home.

We’re in the organisation the best part of 12 weeks. We’ve been trying to put in place an exciting new strategy and communicate that. We’ve appointed a new international team, putting Keith (Andrews) and Damien (Duff) in with Stephen Kenny. There are nine matches in the autumn, the World Cup next March.

If we qualify, the Euros in Dublin next June. The Nations League in September. Never before in the history of the sport will we have so many international matches in a 12-month window. So if you have your optimistic side up you’re saying we have a lot to look forward to. Which reverses the doomsday scenario.

So the League of Ireland player nearing the end of his career, who has been laid off, who has been sending out CVs, shouldn’t give up hope?

No. We’re not giving up yet. It’s progressing as we go. A few weeks ago, if you asked me (about this season) I’d say it’s one or two out of 10. I’d say now it’s six out of 10. We’ve got a chance of keeping the league infrastructure right this year.

And if we are able to protect the League of Ireland and run the matches and get them streamed internationally, it might be a big first-mover advantage. People may watch League of Ireland matches that have never watched them. There’s an opportunity there and we’ll be slow to let that go.

I would say to everyone, stay calm, hang in there, and let’s keep trying to challenge ourselves to make sure we keep doing the right things.