Last Friday Chelsea first team coach Anthony Barry joined Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland staff. His appointment comes approximately eight weeks after his predecessor Damien Duff’s abrupt exit from the role.
Appearing on RTÉ’s Tuesday evening Champions League nearly a fortnight ago, a visibly reluctant Damien Duff shared an intentionally vague explanation into his reasons for leaving the role, and in doing so, provided viewers with the latest regrettable instalment of the FAI’s “Videogate” affair.
“I appreciate you have to ask, but I don’t really have a lot to say on the matter”, said Duff. “I know I made the right decision, as not one day has passed in which I’ve regretted it. I know it’s not ideal for the manager, but at the same time it’s a chance to bring in a better coach than me.”
Duff’s reasons for leaving the Republic of Ireland team remain open to speculation, yet the media have attributed his departure to the FAI’s mishandling of the Videogate affair dating back to Republic of Ireland vs England friendly in November.
For those unfamiliar, on the eve of the international game, the FAI received a media query from the UK edition of the Daily Mail questioning the alleged contents of a three-minute motivational video shown to the Republic of Ireland players on the eve of the fixture.
Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny was quick to dismiss the matter as a “non-story”, however, the official FAI response suggested otherwise. It quickly issued a statement saying it was “aware of issues surrounding content shared with our Republic of Ireland senior men’s team” and was “looking into this internally as a matter of urgency to establish the facts”.
The auld enemy
In the days that followed, then-CEO Garry Owens carried out the promised investigation, interviewing various senior people in the organisation, including Kenny, before ultimately deciding there was no case to answer.
By then, however, the damage was done. The tone of the FAI’s original statement had a whiff of panic about it, the Daily Mail smelt blood, and moral hysteria ensued.
While the video was never made public, it is believed that the subsequent fallout from the FAI’s mishandling of the Videogate affair was the primary factor behind the resignations of Duff and goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly.
It has also fuelled continued speculation relating to divisions within the Republic of Ireland camp and has inadvertently cast Kenny in unflattering terms as a potentially unsophisticated football man trying to tap into the hackneyed narrative of beating “the auld enemy” to motivate his players, a perception very much at odds with the image he sought to nurture.
Independent board chair Roy Barrett would later acknowledge after a recent FAI AGM that there had been something of an overreaction to the situation on the part of the association. However, 15 weeks (and two new coaching appointments) later and the fallout from controversy still festers.
Where did it all go wrong?
In analysing its initial response to the controversy, it is important to first acknowledge the context. 2020 was a bruising year for the FAI. The association was (and is) still emerging from the toxic legacy of the Delaney era and was seeking to plot a new way forward, one built on a foundation of sound corporate governance, transparency, and professionalism. By extension, this meant working toward a more positive relationship with Irish media and ending its litigious behaviours of old.
However, on this occasion, the FAI, in its attempt to respond to a potentially embarrassing story, misjudged its initial response, and in doing so, succeeded only in further exacerbating the issue and undermining the position of Kenny and his coaching staff. Obviously, Kenny’s “non-story” dismissal of the controversy wasn’t particularly constructive, either: telling media “walk on, nothing to see here” rarely has the desired effect.
In any potential crisis, speed, sincerity, and ownership of the facts are all key ingredients. However, another important element is ensuring the tone of the response is proportionate and measured.
If the FAI had reviewed the video and was satisfied that there was nothing offensive in its content, come out and say as much and reiterate your support for the management team.
Yes, there will still be grumblings from certain quarters of media and social media, but overall, the world will move on. Instead, by speaking to the urgent nature of the situation, the FAI lost sight of its internal audiences. In doing so, it implied guilt, created doubt, and ostracised many of its key people.
The FAI is not the only institution to fall into this trap. In the past 12 months alone, we have seen numerous examples of institutions or individuals who, in their haste to quell potential controversies, have misread the room and paid the price.
Why does this matter?
Nervous reactions suggest an organisation has become paralysed by the prospect of negative headlines, not that it is committed to addressing the rights and wrongs of the situation at hand.
Most seasoned observers can distinguish between an entity genuinely motivated by doing the right thing versus one keen to be seen doing the right thing. Unfortunately, the latter betrays a lack of strong leadership and can ultimately lead to internal disquiet, poor organisational morale, and visible cynicism among those closer to the detail.
The new FAI regime is clearly eager to rebuild trust with the general public and for this it is to be commended. However, at a time when Kenny was already fighting hard to stay afloat amid the challenges of his first 12 months in the role, the association’s ill-advised statement ultimately let him down and gave the story more traction. Instead of protecting or publicly supporting the manager, it succeeded only in making his job more difficult, and both parties have been paying the price ever since.
As the Republic of Ireland squad begin preparations for Serbia away on March 24, Kenny, his new coaching additions, and the FAI can expect many of these same uncomfortable questions to re-emerge.
Paddy O’Dea is a client director at 360.