The Belfast Telegraph reports that the IFA could face a bill approaching £500,000 after settling an unfair dismissal case, brought by former Chief Executive Howard Wells, out of court. Wells was fired months after he began internal grievance procedures, citing anti-English racism within the Association. David Bowen, who held the post before Wells, was also awarded an enormous pay off when he was replaced at the helm of Northern Ireland’s football governing body back in 2005.
During Wells’ tenure at Windsor Avenue, he became incredibly unpopular with supporters, and his dismissal was widely welcomed. Admittedly the former Chief Executive proved a consistent advocate of a multi-sports stadium at the site of the former Maze prison, which enthused few fans, but otherwise the animosity which he attracted was puzzling.
It was commonly perceived that Wells’ stewardship coincided with a spell of excessive commercialism at the IFA. However, for years football people had bemoaned a lack of professionalism within the Association. The Chief Executive introduced new ticketing systems, supporters schemes and other unpopular measures. The IFA began to operate like a business, which, although it might have attracted supporters’ ire, was the corollary of professionalism which Wells was determined to instil.
Similarly, during his time at the association, Wells was eager to modernise its internal structures in order to achieve more effective decision making. He was appalled that approximately £8 million of government funding was almost lost to the local game, because a small coterie of junior clubs were intent upon blocking Sunday football. Parallels can easily be drawn with modern political parties. His plans were unpopular with grassroots‘ administrators, but they were absolutely necessary.
Wells also attracted opprobrium from Northern Ireland’s influential league club, Linfield, and its rabble of supporters. He rightly contended that the contract which governs the use of Windsor Park by the Northern Ireland national team was completely unacceptable. The arrangement, which legal experts have described as ‘unprecedented’, commits the IFA to a one hundred year lease of Linfield’s home ground, and entitles the club to 15% of all revenues from international games.
Any competent Chief Executive is absolutely obliged to dismantle this anti-competitive deal, by any means possible. Wells would have been abdicating his responsibilities, had he ignored a handicap which the IFA had wilfully inflicted upon itself. He underestimated, however, the overlapping and vested interests between Windsor Avenue and Windsor Park.
Tomorrow evening Northern Ireland fans will assemble for the team’s friendly match against Serbia. The national side has enjoyed a relatively successful four years and a commensurate increase in revenue. Yet the IFA’s finances are set to undergo substantial strain. It is a predicament which is, at least partly, self-inflicted.
The supporters will no doubt continue to complain about a lack of professionalism . The new Chief Executive, Patrick Nelson, has a lower profile than Wells. But if he is prepared to combat vested interests within the organisation, he should receive more wholehearted backing than his predecessor.