Northern Ireland football's governing body is to dispense with its community relations officer, it can be revealed.
In a controversial move, the Irish Football Association (IFA) has axed the job that's been occupied by Michael Boyd for the past 13 years.
In that time, the IFA's image, especially with regard to the behaviour of Northern Ireland football fans, has undergone a complete transformation.
The IFA is now regarded as a strident anti-sectarian campaigner and supporter of cross-community initiatives – which makes the decision to dispense with the role of community relations officer all the more surprising.
Mr Boyd, who spearheaded the award-winning European Union-supported Football For All anti-sectarian campaign five years ago, will be offered the opportunity to apply for another role within the football body, as will his colleague Geoff Wilson, whose public relations job is also being axed.
Northern Ireland fans came under fire in February 2001 when Neil Lennon, who had just joined Celtic, was booed by a section of the Windsor Park support while playing in a friendly against Norway.
Lennon then retired from international football after a death threat was issued just hours before he was due to captain the team in a friendly against Cyprus in August 2002.
Boyd played a high-profile role in helping restore the image of Northern Ireland supporters – who received an EU Award in 2005 and have since maintained their reputation as among the best behaved fans in European football.
The move to axe the community relations post comes three months after the Belfast Telegraph revealed that restructuring at the IFA would lead to redundancies.
Wilson has been in his post since the summer of 2005 and he has been responsible for an increase in the association's commercial activity over the last eight years.
IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson last night declined to comment on the decision to axe both positions within the organisation.
Belfast councillor Jim Rodgers, who was on the Sports Council (which became Sport NI) for 10 years, knows both men and said they had done a "fantastic job". "This is absolutely dreadful news and it's a retrograde step," said Mr Rodgers, a two-time Lord Mayor of Belfast.
"It's a terrible slap up the face, not only to the two gentlemen, as I would describe them, but to football in particular, and sport in general.
"This is a major blow and will be a major surprise to many people in football at all levels."
Mr Rodgers said Boyd and Wilson are known throughout the sporting world because of the great work that they have done in transforming the IFA.
"The IFA didn't have any community relations policy and they weren't reaching out to the wider community," he said.
"With regard to public relations, there was always a silence; you couldn't get a statement from them, which was just unbelievable."
The former city mayor added: "They've done such a good job their names should have been put forward for recognition by Her Majesty the Queen either in the New Year's Honours list or the Queen's Birthday Honours list.
"For a long time I've felt there were too many people employed by the IFA, but that's no excuse for getting rid of the wrong people.
"They would have been the last two people that any employer would have decided upon getting rid of.
"There are other positions the IFA could quite clearly do without, and even at this late hour I would ask them to have a rethink."
Michael Boyd joined the Irish FA in the newly-created post of community relations officer in February 2000.
Within a year he was having to deal with the fallout from Northern Ireland player Neil Lennon being jeered by a section of his own fans, and later, a death threat to Lennon.
Windsor Park was also being labelled a 'no-go area for Catholics' by nationalist politicians. His efforts to rebrand the IFA as a powerful, anti-sectarian and pro-cross-community body have earned him several major awards, including the Excel Leadership Award for his work on the successful and widely-praised Football For All campaign.
His efforts, alongside those of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, have resulted in our international football fans now being regarded as among the best-behaved and most welcoming in Europe.