Des Casey, who died last week aged 91, was a true legend in Irish football administration, but he was so much more than that. As a young man, he was a talented goalkeeper, and the goalkeeper’s art of “covering all angles” proved to be a metaphor for his professional life as a union official and footballer, where the art of spotting an acceptable compromise for everything proves to be invaluable.
As a railway employee with Great Northern Railway (GNR), his abilities were quickly recognized and he became branch secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association and then national secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
As if that wasn’t enough for one man, he also became rights commissioner and participated in consultations for national wage agreements.
Des has lived his whole life on Carrick Road in the shadow of the floodlights of Oriel Park, so it was no wonder he was a proud supporter of Dundalk FC. He became involved in the supporters club and later in life, despite his rise through the official ranks of Irish and European football, he was as happy on the terraces of Oriel Park, mingling with the supporters, as he was he mingled with the elites of UEFA and Fifa.
It’s that common touch that has endeared him so much, and it will be recognized in his hometown, where Oriel Park is expected to bear his name for the remainder of the season.
He was elected to the board of Dundalk FC in 1962 and began his march up the administrative ladder, serving as secretary before being appointed honorary treasurer of the League of Ireland.
His wife, Mary, succeeded him as secretary and represented Dundalk FC at meetings of the League of Ireland, the first woman to hold this position. She was also the first woman to attend the league’s AGM.
Des was first elected to the FAI Council in 1972 and was honored with the presidency in 1984. A year later, after Ireland failed to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, he was decided it was time to give airing to his belief that a UK-based coach was needed to succeed the ill-fated Eoin Hand, whose last match, a disastrous 4-1 home defeat to Denmark, was gave further impetus to Casey’s suggestion.
The dice were thrown at a management meeting when the decision to hunt heads was made. Casey and Dr Tony O’Neill were tasked with contacting as many suitable candidates as possible and arranging a weekend in England to interview them. They would then report back to the executive, putting in order of preference those they thought were the best fit for the position.
Although Casey and O’Neill were not asked to make a recommendation, it appears Manchester City manager Billy McNeill was their first choice. However, the pay terms offered by City proved prohibitive and, after a second interview with Jack Charlton, the headhunters decided to push for his appointment.
While the late candidacy of Bob Paisley, who had not been interviewed, put the spade among the pigeons, a series of six secret votes finally saw Charlton emerge by a 10-8 margin to cheers from all members. of the council present – with the exception of supporters of John Giles, Pat Grace and Tony Byrne.
Casey’s presidency thus set in motion 10 glorious years for Irish football, highlighted by qualification for Euro ’88, Italy ’90 and the USA ’94, but it was not immediately obvious to the association ran out of money, as £30,000 was lost the first. two games under Charlton due to a lack of interest in friendlies against Wales and Uruguay.
Casey had a busy year in 1998 as chairman of three UEFA committees – Youth, Fun Football and Fair Play – and his proudest moments in football came when, as chairman of the Youth Committee , he had the pleasure of presenting the trophies to Sean Byrne and Barry Quinn, the captains of the European Championship doubled by Brian Kerr’s Under-16 and Under-18 teams.
He was the first Irishman to be elected to UEFA’s 12-member executive, served as UEFA vice-president in 2000 and was named a UEFA life member in 2002 for his service to football.
As a former FAI President and Honorary Secretary, he knew the halls of power and was recognized for his hard work, passion, commitment and expertise.
Alongside Dr Tony O’Neill, he campaigned to impose a retirement age of 70 for UEFA leaders as some were tempted to cling too long to their benefits. He proved he was a man of his word when he resigned from the UEFA executive when he turned 70 in 2001.
One downside to this decision was his absence from Saipan in 2002. He did not travel with the team, but intended to come out later. When the crisis hit, he changed his plans and admitted he had to share some of the blame for not having the right personnel and procedures in place to deal with the situation.
In retrospect, his diplomatic presence in Saipan might have helped pinpoint the problem before it got out of control.
Even in retirement, Des was in demand, being co-opted into the steering committee which was formed to present the Irish-Scottish bid for Euro 2008, but England paid for that with their bid for the World Cup in 2006. One result of all that was Des dining in Downing Street with Tony Blair as the English FA sought his help.
Another area where he was constantly in demand was as an observer at important UEFA matches. He was so respected that he was regularly assigned to matches all over Europe.
The tributes paid to him last week by UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin and Fifa President Gianni Infantino were a further indication of these administrators’ admiration for his hard work for the game, not only in Ireland. but all over the world.
However, the tribute by FAI President Gerry McAnaney hit the mark.
“What Des didn’t know about football wasn’t worth knowing,” he wrote. “We were blessed with his insight and his love for football. He was a visionary and an incomparable administrator. He was never more than a phone call away, with good advice and a listening ear.
Yes, he was a football man, but a helpful man is his true legacy, as anyone who came in contact with him will recognize.
Des is survived by his wife Mary (née Duffy), his children Christine, Anne, Mairéad and Páraic, his sister Pat, his grandchildren as well as his extended family and friends. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.