Who is Jonathan Hill? The ex-FA director and Euro 96 guru set to take over from John Delaney

The preferred candidate needs to be commercially savvy as the Association face into challenging period
Daniel McDonnell

The recent history of the FAI has largely been a tale of Irish executives placing their trust in the revenue-generating capabilities of managers hired from abroad.

By identifying Jonathan Hill as the permanent replacement for John Delaney, the new FAI board are pursuing an alternative strategy by looking to an Englishman with worldwide contacts to use his commercial acumen to drive finances in tandem with the exploits of a team led by a home-based manager in the form of Stephen Kenny.

The deal to bring in Hill (57) is not quite signed and sealed as there are formalities to be completed but he has emerged as the preferred candidate through a two stage interview process.

He will join on a salary of around €207,000 and his initial contract is expected to be in the five to seven-year bracket.

Hill saw off other candidates, most notably OCI chief Sarah Keane, because of a recognition that the choice needed an extensive commercial background as opposed to a candidate held in high regard for their work in governance.

The FAI top brass are unhappy that Hill's name leaked out into the public domain, but the timing of the news, coming on the day that interim CEO Gary Owens laid out to an Oireachtas Committee that the pandemic had cost the football body €19m in 2020 and could do similar in 2021, illustrated the skillset that is required in both the short and long term.

This week's release of 'Champagne Football', the stellar work of Sunday Times journalists Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, has again shone a light on the utter dysfunction of the FAI under Delaney.

In many respects, it made a compelling case for searching outside the island for a new face because of lingering questions about the role of Sport Ireland and other powerbrokers in the mess and the extent to which Irish officialdom is a small world where recurring characters frequently encounter each other.

A break from that is probably the percentage call, but FAI sources have indicated that the reason for going this route is quite simply the strength of Hill's CV.

What is his background? Hill gave a detailed rundown on his journey in an August interview with UP Magazine, a sport, leisure and hospitality trade production that sells itself as providing 'intelligent perspectives for sector leaders.'

The intro described Hill's 20 years of experience in the global world of sports marketing, senior positions with agencies such as IMG & WPP and experience driving the commercial development of some of the biggest brands in sport such as the English FA, the All Blacks, the FA Cup, Euro 96 and Wembley Stadium. It detailed how Hill had recently concluded his role with Laureus, a charitable foundation that runs sports awards.

He said he'd 'missed the cut and thrust' of 'mainstream sport' and was therefore open to a new challenge. Evidently, the FAI door opened at the right time.

Hill explained how a turning point in his career came in the mid 1990s when he left the TV industry, and a role running the sales division of NBC Super Channel, to join the FA as Marketing Manager working on their hosting of 'Euro 96.

"I took a huge drop in salary in accepting the job, so it really was a career-defining moment but one that I would never regret," he said.

He was credited for choosing the 'Football Comes Home' slogan which really took off and his profile grew off the back of it.

Hill spent time with IMG, working on the creation of the models for the Scottish, Dutch and Russian top flights, before returning to the FA to work on their Wembley Stadium commercial project and then become the Association's overall commercial lead.

Through these roles, Hill got to work close up with senior team managers such as Terry Venables, Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello and has stories to tell about those experiences. Hill departed the FA in 2009, a story which did command column inches in sports news gossip columns.

The Daily Mail diarist Charles Sale described Hill's exit as a blow for the FA, stating that his 'five-year tenure brought a £300m increase in revenue' and linking his departure to a 'clash of working styles' with his bosses and his concerns about the costly decision to sign a rights deal with Setanta which proved problematic.

It was reported that Hill earned £400,000 per annum at that juncture, thus making him the second highest paid administrator on their books.

That would have put him in a similar ballpark to Delaney, although we are still learning the true value of the ex-FAI chief's working arrangements.

The FAI did look to English experts and the lessons from Wembley in selling their doomed Vantage Club project, but they didn't succeed in adapting it to their circumstances.

Hill will be asked in due course about the extent of his dealings with the FAI in his next job with Kentaro, an agency whose football operations centred around arranging high-profile international friendlies.

Kentaro organised marquee games for the Brazilian national team in a variety of locations, including games with Ireland in both Dublin and London. The latter fixture in 2010 caused something of a storm because of confusion around why it took place on neutral territory but this was tied in with Kentaro's model. They would locate the venue, manage the costs and then pay a fee to the protagonists.

These were risk-free games for the FAI in comparison to the pressure that accompanied every encounter at the Aviva.

Hill said Kentaro's main area was the 'commercialisation of football, FA and confederation broadcast rights across the world'.

Ironically enough, he cites Uefa's switch to a centralised TV deal as a factor in the decline in that business. That Uefa scheme is vitally important for smaller Associations such as the FAI who previously relied on glamour draws and lucrative friendlies to generate TV money.

Delaney always portrayed himself as a driving force in lobbying for that move; the FAI had to draw down their €7.5m (now rising to €10m) chunk in advance because their position was so dire.

While the FAI descended, Hill was headhunted from Kentaro by WPP, a global agency network, and went from there to Laureus, a platform which had started in 2000, with Nelson Mandela as a patron. He says there was a digital and commercial focus to his brief. The range of his experience appears to have convinced interview panels that he has the versatility to cope with what's ahead.

Key sponsorships are up for renegotiation. Covid is the firefighting challenge ahead of him, but whenever that passes, there is a feeling that the FAI has underperformed commercially.

Their expired deal with main backers Three was worth in the region of €1.9m per annum. It has been noted that the IRFU net around €5m from their Vodafone partnership.

We don't really need to know too much about Hill's personal life, but there will inevitably be interest initially.

Philosophy

He is married with three kids, still plays 11-a-side football, helps out with the coaching of his son's U-12 team and told UP that he runs 10km every other day.

"I think that ultimately, the quality and philosophy of the people I work with is of paramount importance," he said. "Like-minded people who share a vision, a philosophy of life and business, because business has to be fun."

Hall will turn 60 during his time with the FAI but one can only hope that the party doesn't require the presence of working Abbotstown staff, and prominent politicians, pundits and broadcasters, with Delaney's 50th.

It is substance, rather than the illusion of style, that the FAI require from this appointment.


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