On the eve of Cymru’s first appearance in the FIFA World Cup for 64 years, Noel Mooney, CEO of the Football Association of Wales, spoke with former Cymru captain Laura McAllister about values, vision and how football can drive social change
The FAW is the third oldest football association in the world, founded at the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, Wrexham to make arrangements for a fixture against Scotland in 1876.
But on the eve of the country’s second appearance at the FIFA World Cup, its first for 64 years, Cymru chief executive Noel Mooney says: ‘It feels like Spotify at the moment. It feels like a start-up. Like a blank canvas. We’re at a very special moment.’
Mooney tells Laura McAllister, herself a key influence at the heart of Welsh football’s renaissance: ‘I don’t know if that’s how it looks, but that’s how it feels. It feels like we’re completely at the epicentre of building social change.’
Few of the fans who gathered last weekend for the Wal Goch Festival in Wrexham, or those tens of thousands who have viewed ‘Yma o Hyd’, Cymru’s official World Cup song on YouTube, or the thousands of schoolchildren who participated in Jambori Cwpan y Byd with the Urdd would disagree.
‘I look at it like a creation,’ says Mooney of the cultural movement rapidly gathering pace around the FAW. ‘Like a painting or a piece of music.’
Gwyl Cymru is Welsh football’s collaboration with the arts sector – being held at more than 250 venues around the country – with an emphasis on ‘Cymru, community and creativity’; it is in many ways an antidote to the traditional ‘fan zone’ focused on watching the game on a big screen with a pint. ‘We looked at that,’ says Mooney, ‘but it didn’t feel like who we are any more.’
Throughout the conversation, Mooney uses the word ‘build’ to describe what the FAW is trying to do. ‘It feels like we’ve got a chance to build on something that is not just football but part of the cultural evolution of the country.’
‘It’s not just about football, it’s what football can do for communities. We’ve now got this opportunity to live our values on the world stage.’
‘I absolutely love football,’ says Mooney, who grew up in the west of Ireland with four sports. ‘Hurling and Gaelic football were the two biggest, rugby was growing, and then there was football… I wanted to build my own football club, which I did when I was twelve, and it’s still going strong.’
But having forged a successful career marrying his twin passions of football and business, he has now set his sights much higher than sporting governance. ‘It’s not just about football, it’s what football can do for communities. We’ve now got this opportunity to live our values on the world stage.’
Mooney talks quickly and passionately in a soft lilt about the importance of the opportunity. Here is a CEO with his eyes on both the top level strategic vision of ‘Cymru on the world stage’ and ‘the local village… six to seven thousand coaches, ten thousand volunteers, almost a thousand clubs across the country’. He asks himself the question: ‘How do we bring the workforce up when they’re volunteers?’
Listening to Mooney is a bracing experience. He pivots from detailing the technological advances that allow Gareth Bale to know exactly when he should drink water to a sweeping vision of ‘what we can do for the mind, body and soul, for every person across the country.’
‘I really hope over the next few years that when we hand over the baton to the next people, we’ll have built something quite spectacular.’
But Mooney is also realistic. ‘There’s a lot of politics in football and a lot of ebbs and flows and it’s part of my role as leader to make sure we’re on top of the wave.’
And just as Cymru supporters will be hoping the men’s team captain and long-term talisman commits to at least one more tournament leading the nation on the pitch, they will also be reassured by the suitably far-off date used by the inspiring Mooney to outline the FAW’s vision off it. ‘It’s really clear in my mind what we will look like by 2030 and it’s really beautiful.’
At the heart of Mooney’s vision is ‘values’ – this is what the Irishman believes gives the ‘independent football nation’ of Cymru its USP. ‘We’ve got something about us that everyone recognises that’s beyond just football.’
This is a man with a track record that should give everybody in Cymru confidence of delivery.
He compares Cymru to German second division club St Pauli, who he says have ‘got an identity and values – real values’ and the Uruguay and Croatia international teams. He also mentions the All Blacks.
‘There’s something about New Zealand and their brand, for want of a better word, that is just really special. And we want to create something like that in Welsh football – but even better.’
It’s an ambitious aim, but this is a man with a track record that should give everybody in Cymru confidence of delivery.
While working for the Football Association of Ireland, Mooney was spotted by UEFA who initially ‘asked me to go and help with things in different countries’ – including Israel and Kazakhstan – before asking him to write ‘a paper on how to grow European football.’
That was in 2011. Mooney locked himself at home over a weekend, wrote the paper and was immediately asked by UEFA to deliver it. No interview, just an invitation to get on with the job.
Ten years leading on strategic development for UEFA followed, working with the biggest clubs and biggest associations in the world, and benefitting from ‘the ability to go and find the best person to do a particular job… soaked in all the best things in European football.’
It’s that experience and expertise Noel Mooney now brings to the country he insists on calling Cymru. And it is fair to say that his impact on the FAW, and the nation, has been nothing short of phenomenal. McAllister reminds the audience gathered at Cardiff Business School that the Irishman only arrived fourteen or fifteen months ago.
Since then he has implemented what he calls ‘relatively quick change management’ and laid out a six point road map for future success. Mooney rattles off the topline priorities at high speed, the way a top level football manager names his goalkeeper and a settled back five: ‘Drive high performance; sustainability for the future; drive participation; build a great workforce; inspirational and fit for the future; put Wales on the world stage.’
Mooney draws attention to the fact that the whole strategic plan, comprising ‘eighty or ninety commitments and what we’re delivering’ is available on the Ein Cymru website as an exercise in accountability.
The plan dates from very early in Mooney’s tenure when Stewart Regan, former CEO of the Scottish FA, conducted a root and branch review of Welsh football. Mooney took the proposals to the full council of the FAW in Wrexham, challenging his colleagues to ‘take the medicine’ with an ‘all or nothing’ approach.
He admits now that if the radical plan hadn’t been agreed, he would no longer be here. The drive back from Wrexham to Cardiff was ‘a breakthrough moment.’ When he spoke to Laura McAllister on the phone during that journey, he admits to not remembering much because ‘I was on Cloud Nine’.
Mooney and McAllister originally met in UEFA circles, where Laura describes Noel as having been ‘very helpful’ during her campaign to join the FIFA’s ruling council (she narrowly lost, but does not rule out running again – and Mooney is actively encouraging it).
McAllister asks what Mooney made of the Cymru set up when he first arrived. He was impressed by the level of coach education here, citing Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry and Roberto Martinez as examples of a legacy left by Gary Speed and the former Wales assistant coach Osian Roberts. ‘And I didn’t realise how close the players were. I met the men’s’ senior team and saw the brotherhood among them. And then I met the women’s team and it was clear that Gemma [Grainger] is building something really special there too.’
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But the downside of Welsh football was just as obvious. Mooney describes grassroots facilities as ‘Third World’. And when he came into post, staff morale at the FAW was low. Mooney recalls ‘frustration and almost anger in the room’ when he met people who love football but were being underpaid compared to their counterparts in other industries.
Thinking about the country more generally, Mooney was struck by the Future Generations Act, and the sense here of a ‘new energy, new things bursting into life’.
Being from a country he describes as ‘a short swim away’, Mooney has a fresh, outsider’s take on our ‘independent football nation’ and happily admits the FAW have ‘tilted comms to be more small “p” political – that includes culture’.
But he says that in contrast with Cymru, ‘in Dublin the business community is full of beans, full of what we can achieve and what we can do… we’re [currently] miles and miles off, for example, what Ireland have done building a brand internationally’.
At UEFA Mooney witnessed the ‘Swiss/German mindset of event planning, where people have rows amongst them about the texture of a napkin or the tone of music when you walk into a room’ and says this attention to detail will inform ‘every part of what we do’.
The consensus is that Qatar will not make progress on human rights issues or equality, diversity and inclusion if its authorities are not challenged. Mooney advocates ‘sitting down with people – and we need to be in the room to do that.’
An example in Qatar will be the players’ hotel rooms. ‘It’s a standard Middle Eastern hotel room,’ says Mooney, ‘but we’ve Cymru-fied it – to remind them what and who they’re playing for.’ The breath of three million on the back of their necks.
It ‘really annoyed’ Mooney that there were ‘about 3000 empty seats at Cymru’s home Nations League clash with the Netherlands.’
‘With Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey playing in their home city, we need to have more of a fear of missing out if we’re going to go from what is around 25,000 core supporters now to fifty or sixty thousand in the future.’
He dreams of a day the Cardiff City Stadium might not be big enough for home internationals, but says it’s very unlikely the Principality will become an option, mainly because the fans – who have been so vital to Welsh football’s resurgence – like going to Cardiff City Stadium – ‘or Wrexham when it’s built.’
Mooney says it’s important to emphasise ‘the pure support, not false support’ that the FAW as an organisation, as well as the team, receives – and says it’s important to reflect the values of the fanbase.
This is particularly important when it comes to Qatar. ‘We’ve made our position clear,’ says Mooney, ‘as have Welsh Government.’ The consensus is that Qatar will not make progress on human rights issues or equality, diversity and inclusion if its authorities are not challenged. Mooney advocates ‘sitting down with people – and we need to be in the room to do that.’
Laura McAllister adds that ‘we all understand the ethics and the compromises we have had to make to attend this horribly compromised tournament’ but says ‘we won’t compromise on the values that Cymru has on everything we say or do: human rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights… please support us on that.’
She underlines that Qatar is essentially a work project. ‘We’ll be there for two reasons: success on the pitch, and to sell Wales to the world. Being in the same group as England plays perfectly for us.’ A global audience of billions will – many for the first time – understand that Cymru is not England.
The World Cup also represents a £4m payday for the FAW. So what will be the tangible legacy?
Mooney goes back to grassroots facilities, and asks a pertinent question. ‘Is it an environment for her?’ He cites the 1000% growth in audience for the women’s senior team in the last year, with attendances rocketing from 1500 to 15,000 as Gemma Graninger’s team went as close as possible to a World Cup qualification of their own.
He is determined to invest in a football environment Cymru’s next generation of female players find comfortable, a far cry from the ‘steel door and concrete’ of many existing changing rooms.
And as with the association’s overall strategy, Mooney rattles off a series of major changes that will further turbocharge the women’s game going forward. Gemma Lewis, ‘who is Welsh – from Barry – but who has worked in Australia and New Zealand’ comes in as head of performance, and the FAW is in talks with Gemma Grainger, ‘to persuade her to stay longer in Cymru.’ Mooney says Grainger is ‘a perfect fit with our values’ as well as a great coach.
Mooney is also clear that ‘we need to keep evolving our governance structures’ and wants gender parity ‘not because it ticks a box but because we make better decisions’. And the same applies with ‘people who come from different classes, different parts of the world, even.’
And the FAW will also be building on its increasing involvement in public affairs. Helen Antoniazzi, a former political special advisor and currently Director of Policy and Communications at Chwarae Teg, will join the FAW in January 2023, in Mooney’s words ‘to champion us with the government’.
When Cymru kick off against the United States on Monday night, the FAW will need little assistance in gaining the ear of Welsh Government. Indeed, almost every pair of eyes in the nation will be on them.
What the FAW have is ‘pure gold’ says Mooney – a monopoly in Wales on the sport that is a global obsession.
And as excitement builds on the pitch, there is also growing belief that Cymru can replicate its sporting success across the whole gamut of public policy. ‘Social prescribing, education, the economy…’
It seems there is no limit to the potential of what football might do, not just to lift the nation’s spirits, but to make a genuine material difference to our lives.
Noel Mooney was in conversation with Laura McAllister at Cardiff Business School’s Breakfast Briefing on Tuesday 8 November, 2022.
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