In yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, Sports Editor Steven Beacom revealed that Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill will be given a new four year contract by the Irish FA and that he and the players will receive bonus payments for qualification which will total well in advance of £1 million. Today in a wide ranging and exclusive interview he talks to IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson about what qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals will mean to the Association, the latest on Windsor Park and its completion date and naming rights plus the new President who is on the way.
Steven Beacom: It is fantastic that Northern Ireland have qualified for the Euro 2016 finals. Congratulations on that. So, what will this mean for the IFA?
Patrick Nelson: A couple of years ago we set out our thoughts in our strategy 'We're not Brazil, We're Northern Ireland' and we have now achieved our number one objective in that strategy which was to qualify for a major tournament. We have almost achieved our number two objective to build the national stadium and now it is time to refresh our strategy which is fantastic especially when you consider when we launched it some people said it was a little bit outlandish.
Also qualification will do more for the country than anything else I can think of. I think Northern Ireland qualifying for the European Championship finals will mean a really positive mood in the country over the next 12 months or so because football unites like almost nothing else I can think of. Ballet, music, art are all very nice and are all very good for some people but sport touches more people and within that football touches more people. To me it is the number one.
We did some research in the summer and 71% of the Northern Ireland population in the sample that we did said that qualifying for Euro 2016 would unite the country. Governments around the world would be appreciative of approval factors around the world of 71%.
SB: And of course as everyone knows the IFA will now be in line to make a lot of money.
PN: Yes, what is important is that we get a qualification fund form Uefa and that allows us to do three things.
1) to reward the players and manager for actually doing this.
2) being able to respect the tournament. We won't go there on a shoestring. It will be properly done and respected. As Michael will tell you we are going there with positive thoughts. We aren't just going there to be tourists.
3) There will be some funding that we can turn into a legacy, going towards further strengthening what we do in the elite performance area because when we rewrite our strategy it will be along the lines of qualifying regularly. You can't do that unless you have professional footballers. What we are focused on and our elite performance director Jim Magilton is trying to do is create professional footballers. When the kids leave our shores aged 16 to try and make the grade they have to be physically, emotionally and mentally as ready as the kid who has been in the Manchester City Academy at the age of eight and that's what Jim is doing. I think we can put more money into that.
SB: In total how much money will the IFA receive for qualification?
PN: Eight million euro is what Uefa are telling us at this moment. A qualification bonus is what they call it and then in terms of prize money once we get there they are saying look back at the last Euro finals as a guide because you get money for points and wins, such as a million euros for a win in the group stage.
SB: There is also merchandising, sponsorship, shirt sales and ticket sales to be accounted for.
PN: Yes, we should sell more kits and in an ideal world people will want to be involved with us from a commercial point of view. Every pound we make enables us to re-invest in Northern Ireland football, be it the international team, the domestic games or at grassroots level.
SB: Given the interest it generates, qualifying for Euro 2016 presents the IFA with an open goal from a marketing point of view, doesn't it?
PN: We have just hired a new Director of Sales and Marketing, Oonagh O'Reilly. She is very dynamic and very focused and she will be out there telling the story of Northern Ireland football to as many businesses as possible in order to try and ensure we gain the right amount of interest.
SB: Everyone knows the IFA have wasted money in the past, such as when former Chief Executive Howard Wells had to be paid £500,000 for wrongful dismissal. Is this the chance for the IFA to win back the confidence of the Northern Ireland people?
PN: If you look at things the IFA has been on quite a good journey over the last five or six years. We have made surplus amounts in six of the last seven years which contributes to our reserves and ensures we can invest in football in Northern Ireland. From being an organisation that people had concerns over we are in a position now where we are a well governed association and hopefully that will continue into the future.
SB: In his first interview after becoming chairman Gerry Mallon admitted that the public perception of the IFA was one of a a bumbling organisation. As we've said the Euro 2016 finals present the IFA with a glorious opportunity to make a real difference. Can you guarantee the public, the IFA won't blow this big chance?
PN: What I can tell you is that I think we have a great team in place. I have been privileged to be part of the team for six years and I think we are in great shape. We set our our strategy and will now have to refresh that strategy because in the last two years a lot of things that we wanted to do we have already achieved. And now we are looking forward to this opportunity. We have waited 30 years for this opportunity. We know exprectations are higher all the way round and it is our job to meet them.
SB: Will you invest in the Irish League?
PN: We do already. Over the last few years we have spun out the Irish League into its own self managed company and we have a relationship with that company. To give them credit they have been going for two and a half years now and their board and Chief Executive Andrew Johnston in particular have done a brilliant job. I'm impressed by how they re-branded and got the Irish League into the shape it is in and will continue having a long term relationship with them.
SB: Okay, on to Windsor Park. Work is continuing on the re-development of the stadium. When will it be totally finished, including the new Kop Stand?
PN: The target that I have given to the project team is that I need 18,500 people in the stadium for the San Marino game in the World Cup qualifiers in September 2016. There is a fair bit of work still to be done. The last conversations with the insurance people are coming up and I'm hopeful that will be resolved very soon and then we can get into detail on design and the building programme.
SB: So there won't be a capacity crowd of 18,500 at a farewell game for the Northern Ireland team before they leave for France and Euro 2016?
PN: I don't think so. I don't think we will manage that. If we do we will be delighted but I think that may be a bit of a stretch from where we are now.
SB: The fans are still in the dark about happened to the Kop stand, which had to be demolished due to structural problems after Northern Ireland beat Finland 2-1 in March. Will you tell everyone what exactly happened and be transparent about it?
PN: What was happening was work that was on another site. It wasn't on our site. It is the insurers who are still having the final debates over this. When they finish having their debate I think we can be a bit more direct and open on it.
SB: Just a bit more? Surely you need to be totally open?
PN: We will say whatever we can say. Clearly you can work out that insurers down the line will be paying the bills for this and in the first place we have a policy so it is our insurers who reimburse us and will fund the re-building of the stand, however they will look down the line to the causation matters, they will look at their professional reports etc and they will chase the money down the line.
SB: But will you tell the supporters exactly what happened?
PN: I suspect they will, but I'm not an expert in the insurance world and how much they will release in terms of information.
SB: I know sponsorship deals are brewing for the IFA. Tennants for example are in line to be the new Irish Cup sponsors. When will that be announced?
PN: Yes, as you say we have deals, and you used the word brewing, but once we have signed up any partners we will announce them.
SB: Is that the same with the naming rights for Windsor Park?
PN: It is, yes.
SB: Straight question for you, I know you have been talking to Tayto about sponsorships deals. Will Windsor Park soon be called the Tayto national stadium?
PN: We are still looking for a naming rights partner.
SB: So it won't be called Tayto national stadium then?
PN: I'm not saying it will or won't be anybody. We are still looking for a partner.
SB: Amid all the joy of qualifying for Euro 2016 do you see a dark cloud on the horizon with the controversial David Martin set to become president next year?
PN: We have been lucky to have had Jim Shaw for five and a half years and he has done a brilliant job. What happens next is that we elect another president from our council members and I will be very happy with anybody who will become President.
SB: So, you will be happy to see David Martin elected as president?
PN: David is the first deputy president and has contributed significantly over the past 12 to 18 months doing tremendous work, in particular with our girls' and women's plan and also our youth strategy which we launched six weeks ago. I don't like picking out particular board members but they are two projects he worked on and are good pieces of work. I'm looking forward to working with whoever becomes president.