In his first in-depth interview, new IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson speaks to Stuart McKinley about his first 100 days in the job and his hopes for the future of football here
Stuart McKinley: First of all can you sum up what the first 100 days have been like?
Patrick Nelson: I’m very lucky to have this job, it’s a fantastic job and I’m really enjoying it. I didn’t realise it’s been 100 days because it’s flown in. It took me six or seven weeks to get a television for my flat, because I just hadn’t spent that much time there and I haven’t got round to getting Sky or anything like that because I’m not there often enough to worry about it.
It’s been very, very enjoyable to be here. I think I’ve integrated pretty well into the team here and I try to be an integrator rather than anything else. My view is that we’ve a lot of good people working for the Irish Football Association and my job is to be the conductor, the captain, and I need to understand the people and their own motivation.
Most days I bounce in thinking that I’m still the new boy and there is a lot to learn and I think I am picking up quite well. It’s a complex business because there are a lot of stakeholders to keep happy and there is lots that we can do for football in Northern Ireland, we just have to focus on it, do the right thing and do it as excellently as we possibly can.
SM: You’ve kept a low profile so far and kept out of the media, has that been a conscious thing?
PN: I think it’s been the right thing to do. I’m not sure I’d claim it as being a conscious thing, but I have always taken the view that there’s not really a great benefit in shouting from the rooftops if you’re not 100 per cent sure about what you’re going to be shouting and if you are going to change it the following week.
I think it’s been absolutely the right thing to maintain a low profile and to think about what the organisation needs to be doing and that’s really what we’ve been doing. Time has been spent on creating and articulating our strategy and the only way you do that is by talking and listening to the stakeholders, both inside our building and outside.
We’re in the early to middle stages of articulating that properly and there are three major things that we are all about here, which is international football, domestic football and grassroots football, and our strategy will be built around those three pillars.
It’s been important to work out what I’m meant to be leading instead of assuming that I knew it all from day one.
SM: What do you think you have achieved so far?
PN: Is it me that’s achieved it? I think team leading is about encouraging other people to achieve.
For me, I’ve been trying to work with the staff to see what roadblocks can I take out of their way in order for them to achieve as much as they possibly can with their own resources.
It’s perhaps a lot of that that I’ve been trying to do, which may be a different style to what the association has had before, I don’t know. My style is very much to try to encourage people to achieve as much as they can. I spend a lot of time talking to and listening to the stakeholders, particularly a lot of time with clubs. I think it’s important that we listen to our clubs and we learn from them.
I’ve spent some time with supporters as well. You can learn a lot from what supporters of the game say because they are the ones who
generally invest their time, their money and their emotion in our game and we should listen to them. We are never going to be able to do everything that they want, but they are a big audience.
A lot of time has been spent listening, learning and gathering our strategic thoughts. If you don’t know where you should be heading then which direction do you take anyway?
SM: What have you learned so far?
PN: I have learned that this is totally different from working in a club, that’s for sure. It’s the same game, you still have 11 people going out trying to win a match, but it’s enormously different.
It comes down to the three pillars again and our responsibilty is for the health and development of the game in Northern Ireland, and that’s everything from a five- or six-year-old boy or girl kicking a ball around for the first time in our grassroots programme right up to David Healy scoring the winning goal against Serbia this Saturday. That’s a prediciton if
We’re involved in everything right from that child to the elite pinnacle of our national game. At a club you don’t have to worry about that, you just have to worry about winning next Saturday and having enough money to pay the bills the following week.
It’s an awesome responsibility that we carry to look after football in the whole country and it’s something that we should wake up every day thinking that we’re really excited about this because we’re being paid and trusted to develop the national game, the game that everyone cares about, the game that showcases Northern Ireland to the world. It’s in our hands.
SM: What are the challenges that lie ahead for you now?
PN: There is always the challenge that there is always much more to do than we’ll ever be funded to do, but that’s the same in most industries. We can build our strategic plan, could employ twice as many staff and still not achieve everything.
We have to prioritise what we want to do and there’s always tough decisions in there.
We need to try to make sure we maintain the strategy and continually review it. We need to continually challenge ourselves too and evolving the culture of football is going to be important and we need to make sure that the organisation is as fit for purpose as it can be. If we take a football analogy we want to make sure everyone can pass the ball to everyone else and we’re all happy doing that and that’s part of my job.
SM: What would qualifying for the World Cup have meant for football in Northern Ireland?
PN: Going out of the World Cup was a big blow. When you get to the end of a World Cup campaign and not qualify, it doesn’t matter how heroic it is, it’s a bigger downer than anything.
What we could have done on the back of qualification would have been immense. You can see the excitement beginning to build in every country that has qualified and we’ll get a taste of that on Saturday when Serbia come to Windsor Park. They have a massive run-up to being part of the biggest festival in the world next summer and what we can do with that if we qualify in the future is massive.
The knock-on effect on the domestic and grassroots game would have been tremendous. We’re trying to get every five and six-year-old into playing football and if there was this massive hype over Northern Ireland going to the World Cup next year it would have doubled and trebled the amount of work that we could have done at grassroots level.
It would have been great for the country as well. I can remember 1982 and 1986 and with my family background in Northern Ireland I remember being on holiday in Wales when Gerry Armstrong scored the goal against Spain and it was great for us at the time.
SM: What is your vision for the future?
PN: I look at the vision of what the IFA is all about. Our mission is to protect and develop football at all levels throughout Northern Ireland. Our vision that we are trying to articulate is what does success look like in five years time? What does success look like then? How do we go about achieving that? How do we use and marshall our resources to try to achieve that success? It’s a business were everyone has involvement, everyone has an opinion and everyone has emotion. You don’t get emotional over a credit card, but good people get emotional over football. It’s a good release. It has the greatest highs, stunning lows on occasions and that’s why it’s the game of the western world.
SM: What is the current position regarding the future of international football at Windsor Park?
PN: We set out our position with regards to Windsor Park a few weeks ago. A lot of work went on behind the scenes, we’ve made our decision that redeveloping Windsor Park is the right way to go in principal and there are still a lot of things to be debated upon and to get right and hopefully that is what we will do. It was a priority that we made progress on the issue and we will. The fact that we made an in principal decision is in itself progress. We weren’t that far before and at least the board has made that decision.
We are now working on a list of issues, the three issues are: the size of the stadium, the management structure of it and the determination of the long-standing contract with Linfield. Those are the three that we touched upon when we made the in principal decision. We want to make progress on the three issues and talk about it when we’ve got something to say.
SM: What about Nigel Worthington’s contract?
PN: I would hope to be involved in that, that’s something for the near future and Raymond Kennedy has spoken about it. Both he and I will be involved and Raymond will take the lead, It’s something that we want to get right.