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IFA's ticket master Patrick Nelson - the man behind the headlines

Northern Ireland football fans criticised him this week during the Euro 2016 tickets shambles. But Patrick Nelson, chief executive of the Irish Football Association, stayed calm and helped find extra tickets for the supporters. Steven Beacom assesses the man behind the headlines

Published 13/02/2016

Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson

Patrick Nelson is no stranger to testing times in his role as the Irish Football Association's chief executive. But having taken up the high profile role in August 2009, he has faced few more challenging weeks than this one.

On Tuesday Northern Ireland supporters reacted with fury when many of them were unsuccessful in their applications for tickets for Euro 2016 fixtures.

They had every right because they felt they were guaranteed tickets through the IFA's priority scheme, which had been passed on to Uefa.

Hundreds of supporters, listed as high ranking fans in the priority scheme, had missed out on tickets for Northern Ireland's game against Poland in Nice on June 12 - the country's first match at a major championships since the 1986 World Cup finals.

Something had gone badly wrong.

And when that happens, people want to know who is to blame.

Nelson, as a figurehead of the IFA, took a lot of criticism. Some supporters even called for his resignation.

With the flak flying Nelson spent most of Tuesday phoning high level Uefa officials and answering calls from the media.

He told the European football governing body that the issue needed to be resolved. That afternoon news came through that Uefa were making just under 1,000 extra tickets available to put right what had gone wrong. That figure would later be confirmed as 839.

It didn't stop the fury amongst the supporters, though, many of whom had lost trust and faith in both the IFA and Uefa, those who had some in the first place.

They were demanding answers, questioning how such a seemingly simple process had been messed up so badly.

Nelson stayed in contact with Uefa, and as the Belfast Telegraph revealed on Friday, those talks led to even more tickets being released for Northern Ireland fans for the Poland game.

The confirmed figure was 437, meaning an extra 1,276 tickets had been secured for Northern Ireland's first ever fixture in the European Championships.

The outcome meant that those fans with a large number of points in the priority system, who were disappointed, angry and frustrated by their unsuccessful applications on Tuesday, would now be going to the ball against the Poles.

Nelson was content. Not triumphant. Content.

He knew it was a victory of sorts, with ironically the ticket fiasco leading to Northern Ireland supporters getting more tickets than they could have expected, but speaking to me at Windsor Park yesterday he admitted that he had felt for the supporters in what had been a rollercoaster week and that from a personal point of view it had been a "huge challenge".

Another one to add to the list.

Nelson arrived at the IFA in curious circumstances, coming in as chief executive following the controversial departure of Howard Wells.

The panel that chose Nelson held long discussions before giving the Englishman the nod.

Heading the selection committee was then Irish FA president Raymond Kennedy.

Within a year he had left his position along with IFA treasurer David Martin following a Sport NI report into the sacking of Wells, who an industrial tribunal had ruled was a victim of unfair dismissal. The case cost the IFA £500,000.

Wells was on television and in newspapers virtually every day when he was chief executive. He loved the spotlight and savoured going toe to toe with interviewers, no matter the subject.

Nelson was a different animal, adopting a much more low-key approach.

Born in Derbyshire in 1960 to his Northern Irish dad and Southern Irish mum, he attended Heanor Grammar School before going on to Nottingham Univeristy, where he graduated with a Business Studies degree.

He worked at East Midlands Electricity in the IT department, moving on to financial services at American Express in 1985.

Later he would work for MasterCard International as general manager for the UK and Ireland and 20 years ago helped set up Capital One Bank in Europe, initially as head of operations and then as director of corporate communications.

In 2004 came his move into football as chief executive of Notts County Football Club, leaving a year later. In 2006 he took over as chief executive of Macclesfield Town.

Three years on the Derby County supporter was at the IFA.

His unveiling wasn't considered a big deal. Just a few journalists turned up and the IFA themselves showed the same level of interest.

The only member of the IFA board in attendance was president Kennedy, who was there to do the formal introduction.

The media men there for Nelson's first day didn't take long to notice that he was completely different to the ebullient and extroverted Wells.

Nelson was shy in comparison. He had never set foot inside Windsor Park but that wasn't going to stop him doing his best for the Association. He was adamant about that, if not inspirational.

Aware of controversies in the past at the IFA, and probably some that would come in the future, such as Kennedy and Martin going, Nelson said at the time of his unveiling: "I want to engage with all the stakeholders within the organisation and that includes fans, players and the Press.

"I intend to listen and I hope I can bring enterprise and good leadership skills.

"I believe in conciliation and bringing people out of conflict and into the middle to find a way forward."

He added that his other priorities would be the stadium project - back then some still believed Northern Ireland should have been going to play at a new purpose-built arena at the Maze - and to deliver a new strategy for the IFA.

In his first few years he continued to stay out of the public spotlight.

Today he laughs about one headline in the Belfast Telegraph which said 'Come in out of the cold Patrick' in relation to him not speaking about Northern Ireland's postponed fixture against Russia at Windsor Park because of a snowbound pitch. His partner laughs even more.

More recently, though, liking to keep his private life just that, he has taken on a much more dominant role at the IFA in terms of doing media interviews.

This week on the ticket issues has been a case in point.

He is articulate and knowledgable about his subject, and stood up admirably to English FA chairman Greg Dyke in a row about a GB Olympic team, which may have caused issues with Fifa for the Northern Ireland football team in years to come.

Nelson never reached a higher level than Division Four of the Mid-Sussex League as a footballer but he has passion for the sport, though he may admit there is no real connection between him and supporters.

They get someone like former IFA president Jim Boyce, but don't look at Nelson with the same affection. He doesn't seem unduly bothered by that.

He will tell you he is here to do a job for Northern Ireland football, and by and large he has proved to be a capable operator.

There are some who will tell you that he is well respected at Uefa, though as has been the case at the Irish FA for decades, there are those who work for the Association who would beg to differ.

Nelson says seven years in he still enjoys the job, and come the summer will become the first IFA chief executive to be at a major tournament with Northern Ireland.

In the previous years when Northern Ireland qualified the IFA had a general secretary.

And, yes, in case you are wondering, Nelson has tickets for all the games in France, as he should.

He says: "Football is a very, very unique thing in society. We can affect and change and help people's lives with football. Of course there are challenges at the IFA, but doing a job like this is exciting. I really enjoy it."

Born: Derbyshire 1960

Appointed as IFA chief Executive in 2009

Favourite teams: Northern Ireland and Derby County

High point: Northern Ireland qualifying for Euro 2016

He says: "Football is a very, very unique thing in society. We can affect and change and help people's lives with football."

They say: "He brought a level of professionalism to the club that will stand us in good stead for the future." Macclesfield chairman Mike Rance.

A life so far

■ Born: Derbyshire 1960

■ Appointed as IFA chief executive in 2009

■ Favourite teams: Northern Ireland and Derby County

■ High point: Northern Ireland qualifying for Euro 2016

■ He says: “Football is a very, very unique thing in society. We can affect and change and help people’s lives with football.”

■ They say: “He brought a level of professionalism to the club that will stand us in good stead for the future.” Macclesfield chairman Mike Rance.

Belfast Telegraph

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