‘We are not just a Football Association – we are a movement’
Sitting in his office at the FAW headquarters in the Vale of Glamorgan, Noel Mooney looks confident and relaxed. Wales will soon be playing in one of the biggest games in its history, with a place at the World Cup in Qatar at stake. Not that Mooney is nervous. The chief executive, who has been in position since 2021, is not one to be flustered.
“The boys have been here (the Vale) already and are ready for the upcoming games. They have gone to Portugal now for some warm weather training. I’m going to go there on Sunday actually. I’m very optimistic. We are very close, just 90 minutes away from qualifying for the World Cup. But we (FAW) don’t budget for qualification, we are ready for whatever comes of it.”
Mooney has had an interesting upbringing and career trajectory. Born in December 1976, Mooney’s family didn’t resettle in his hometown of Cappamore, County Limerick, until he was four.
“My brother was born in Pembroke and my sister was born in Hereford hospital, but we were living in Monmouth for a while. I always say half of my family is Welsh,” he smiles. “My Dad then got a new job, so we moved to London. I was born near Arsenal’s stadium and there were quite a few Irish players playing for them at the time – Liam Brady, David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton. So, I grew up loving football, but when I was four, we came back to Ireland.”
Mooney initially found it strange that he wasn’t allowed to play football at his new school “because it was an English sport and we were in the west of Ireland…they wanted us to play our own indigenous sports, our Gaelic sports.”
Although the young Mooney excelled in these sports, his love for football was ingrained. His business and entrepreneurial skills were clearly innate, setting up his first football club with his friends at the age of 12.
“We started the village football club, Cappamore Celtic,” he recalls. “I’m actually still the president of the club. They have gone from strength to strength.”
This early dalliance with football administration has served him well. “It’s good because when you come from a grassroots club you learn and understand. Then you also appreciate the privilege of playing professionally and playing in European competitions. Then when you are involved in the administration side of sport and you are out and about talking to volunteers, you learn even more. I’ve visited a lot of the clubs in Wales – we have 953 clubs – that is where you learn.”
Football is Mooney’s life. Even his wife worked in football, who he met whilst on a trip to meet with the President of the Estonian Football Association.
“My wife was his assistant. I went to a meeting with UEFA in Tallinn and I ended up coming back with a wife, which was great,” he laughs.
He is the proud father of a young son, 2-year-old Sean. Although he wouldn’t let the birth of his boy interfere too much with his work.
“There’s actually a funny story about this,” he says. “I happened to be back in Ireland at the time temporarily managing the FAI (Football Association of Ireland). Sean was born on a Wednesday in Tallinn and luckily I had just made the birth.
“We had been trying to get a women’s manager for Ireland called Vera Pauw, she’s Dutch. The morning after Sean was born, I had to jump on a flight from Tallinn to Frankfurt to meet Vera, who is married to Dick Advocaat’s assistant Bert van Lingen. She was going on holiday and flying from the Netherlands down to Austria. I found out she was going through Frankfurt, so I rang her and said ‘look, I’ve just had a baby, but I’m willing to leave the baby to sign you because you’re that important,” he laughs. She agreed to meet me, and I met her and her husband at Frankfurt Airport. By the time I had finished talking she had signed for Ireland as the manager.”
Chuckling to himself, Mooney continues: “When I see Vera, we always joke that I left my baby crying in the bed to go and sign her up.”
Did his wife mind? Mooney rubs his chin. “I don’t think she had the energy to object. I think she was still too drugged out. She was still out of it, so I was back in time before she realised I had gone!”
His career in football saw him play as a goalkeeper in the League of Ireland for Limerick, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers, although Mooney says he knew early on that he was more interested in the business and administration side of football.
“When I was a player, I was not so interested in being full time,” he recalls. “I studied a lot. I set up my own company when I was 21, built it up and then sold it. I learned through managing a small company all sort of areas like marketing, HR, finance. I had no choice but to learn them as it was more or less just me.”
His transition into the business side of football literally started on the pitch.
“There’s a funny story about how this career began,” he remembers. “I was playing at Limerick and I had invited Leeds Utd’s second team over to play us. It was a full house and we made good money.
“The first half I had kept a clean sheet and was playing ok. But at half-time the manager said to me ‘you don’t seem very interested in the match, you seem to be looking around at the crowd and how the sponsorship signs look’. I told him I had forgotten to get somebody to bring the money from the gate down to the bank in case somebody takes it, as that was the money that is used to play the players wages.
“I was worried I hadn’t put the provisions in place. He said ‘look, if you want to sort that out, do that in your own time’. I said fine, put the sub goalkeeper on now and I’ll go and do it. So that was it. I downed my gloves and someone else played the second half, even though I had kept a clean sheet.”
Following a cruciate ligament injury and a loss of form, Mooney saw a job advertised that seemed too good to be true.
“It had the longest title in the world – National Co-ordinator of the Club Promotions Officer Programme,” he says. “The FAI had taken over the league and they wanted someone to recruit and to manage a club promotion officer at each of the professional clubs. I had played for a few of them, like Cork City. The FAI would co-fund them and the job was to put a marketing plan in place to grow the link and to work with these people and get them upskilled.”
Not that the interview went as planned. “My father had died on the Friday and in Ireland we can’t wait to bury them! We buried him on the Sunday and Irish funerals are big, so I had quite a few pints that night. My interview in Dublin was the next day. I went still wearing my funeral suit – there was a huge committee. The remit was I had 20 minutes to talk about the future of Irish football. By the time I finished talking I knew I had the job.”
Mooney progressed quickly and within a year had become the head of marketing and a member of the management team at the FAI.
“When I got into this structure, this marriage of football and business, I absolutely love both, it was perfect. I had experience and had done a lot of business as a young person – I suppose I was a bit entrepreneurial and innovative.”
Following a successful five years at the FAI, in 2011 UEFA asked him to write a paper on the future of European football. He wrote his piece over one weekend and was asked to implement it straight away. Starting in marketing and commercial, Mooney again progressed quickly to become the Head of Strategy.
“I loved the job,” he says. “It’s one of the most powerful organisations in the world and I was right in the centre of it. I was working with all 55 countries on their strategies, so I got a real inside look at the likes of Portugal, Germany, France, Switzerland. I spent lots of time with them looking and helping with their strategies around finance, women’s football, public affairs and so on.
“It was good as I was an expert in none of them really, but I was able to call upon really great experts in all the different areas. As you work with these people you get to learn so much. I got to see Associations that were crap when I first met them, that became brilliant over time by having a good strategy and putting good people in place and having the change management that you need to get there. I suppose it was a perfect to learn all about Football Associations and how they work.”
Following a short but successful secondment back to the FAI as chief excutive, where Mooney was tasked with sorting out “a governance mess” and huge debts, he saw the position advertised at the FAW.
“From working with the Welsh FA, I was aware that they had a lot of the ingredients required to become one of the world’s best football federations,” he says. “I knew they had resources following the semi-final at the Euros in 2016. I knew they had done many good things but that there were many areas they had yet to explore. That was clear to me from my analysis. I felt that nobody could really see that, but because of the position I was in with UEFA, where I could see all the elements of the federations, I felt Wales was the one that could be the best – and then the job came up.”
Mooney has no doubts that Wales will continue to progress and become one the biggest nations in world football.
“When I got the job, I felt that if the FAW could be really modernised, perhaps shaken up a little bit more and given big ambitions, confidence and change management, then it could be one of the best in the world. And I am absolutely convinced we are going to do that. We are on the right track.”
Following recent research that football has overtaken rugby as the number one sport in Wales, Mooney says that the results were not to “have a go at other sports”, but to show that although the FAW still has a long way to go, “we are definitely on the right track.”
He is not scared of change management and sees this as a necessity if success is to be achieved. New initiatives such as One Player, One Club will upset the apple cart, but Mooney is convinced it is the right thing to do.
“You have to be convinced you are doing the right thing,” he says. “I have total conviction in what we are doing. We have a very good board and council here which is very important because if they are not with you, it won’t be successful. Unless something catastrophic happens, we are on a good course for success here.”
Mooney is aware that Wales have fallen behind in grassroots football, something that he intends to improve quickly.
“There was no strategy generally when I got here,” he recalls. “Sport Wales are addressing that now and also money had only really come into the game in the last decade and we were kind of catching up. The FAW was essentially broke 10 years ago.”
Following the success of 2016, Mooney says the FAW invested wisely in the three headquarters at Dragon Park (Newport), Colliers Park (Wrexham), and at Hensol in the Vale of Glamorgan. However, he was keen to invest not just in the international side, but true grassroots.
“We went out to all 22 Local Authorities and we asked them for their vision. Then we looked at our clubs and our thinking. We worked with UEFA on satellite mapping to see where the pitches are across Europe and now we have a clear picture of where we need to build pitches and all-weather pitches. We need to spend around £160 million over the next decade just to keep up with our neighbours next door in England.”
The importance of all-weather pitches is something not lost on Mooney. “Over 20% of matches are called off every week. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to know what the weather is going to be like in Wales. We need to have the facilities and conditions to deal with it.”
The Cymru Premier is also something that Mooney believes can unlock its huge potential.
“It has a long way to go yet and we are going to make lots of changes in that area over the next year,” he reveals. “There will be an independent review of the league as it is, and what needs to be done to make it a much better league. We will sit down with the clubs and consult with them and come up with a plan. Next year we can put out a roadmap that we need to invest in.”
Keeping young talented players at clubs is one area that Mooney believe can help Welsh clubs and Wales flourish.
“If they don’t have to leave their families when they are very young and can stay here and be a professional footballer and play in European competitions, then clubs will get a much higher transfer fee when they do move on, which they will, as the English Premier League is the biggest in the world. It is a more sustainable model for the clubs, rather than the players going at age 9 for no fee like Gareth (Bale) did to Southampton.
Football Association of Wellness
Innovation is something that Mooney is continuing to implement in Wales. He is excited about the latest plan for the Football Association of Wellness.
“What we can see from our research is yeah, football is fantastic, and we all love it. But you need to look beyond the sport to see why people are doing it – it’s actually wellness. There is definitely a trend towards living better – less smoking, drinking and being more conscious about our calorie intake. Mental health and mindfulness are so important but are relatively new to a lot of people. What we want to do is blend football with these. Because if we take a primary spot in the wellness movement, that is a much bigger market than just the football playing movement.”
The FAW are currently working with the NHS to build a menu of services that will create clubs that are wellness clubs, not just football clubs.
“At Ammanford (AFC) they have a full counselling service and well-being centre where more than 50 people in the town have self-referred themselves with mental health issues,” he says. “And the club is doing all of this. That is amazing.”
Mooney adds that a number of clubs are following suit in Wales and he is proud of what is happening.
“It’s going to take a lot of energy and change, but there is a development in our clubs when men and women are now talking to each other about their mental health and the challenges they face. We want to shift football from being just football, to wellness. These services, that are built around football, will lead to a much better Wales.”
Women’s and girls’ football
Another area that continues to thrive is women’s and girls’ football. Mooney is excited about the possibilities in Wales.
“There is going to be an even bigger explosion of girls’ football with the Euros next summer in England. It’s already huge, but we have got to be ready for the thousands of girls who are going to go to the sold out matches at Old Trafford and Wembley and then want to become footballers themselves, the next Jess Fishlock.”
The demand in Wales is huge, with long waiting lists as clubs do not having enough facilities at the moment. That is something that Mooney is keen to change.
“Wales is the highest spending Football Association in Europe in women’s football,” he points out. “This is the first year that we have spent more on women’s football than on men’s football. The conditions have to be attractive to girls. We need to qualify for a major women’s tournament, which would be amazing.”
Something that Mooney utilises effectively is social media and particularly Twitter. He says it is not part of a strategy, but he sees it as a way to communicate openly and honestly with supporters.
“It’s just me, it’s who I am. To be honest, I don’t see why we wouldn’t communicate openly with supporters or when people have issues, why wouldn’t we? Rather than going through official, corporate-type channels – why not just ask the CEO directly?
“I’ve got the vast majority of the answers, and if I don’t I’d be worried to be honest. It’s also a good listening tool. There is this thing called the CEO syndrome, where you only get told the good things that are happening in the organisation. Obviously, when I go on twitter that is not what I am being told. You know I’m told ‘we’ve done shit here, we could be doing better there’ (laughs). It’s a really interesting change management journey to see and understand what is really happening.”
The fact that everyone has direct access to him is something that he feels is an important symbol of the FAW and Welsh football.
“We are open for business, we are open for discussion, we are open for improvement. We are open for vulnerability to show we definitely don’t get everything right. But by listening to people we can definitely get better. We may not agree with every suggestion or be able to do everything that comes in, but we have to listen to things.”
An example of this was when UEFA recently sold the television rights to Wales international games to Scandinavian company Viaplay. It was something that was out of the FAW’s hands, but Mooney understood why Welsh fans were upset.
“The problem for us comes when we don’t get enough exposure, and in Wales we had the particular issue which is S4C,” he explains. “It’s in the Welsh language and there is a great love for the channel, rightfully so. The game of football and the national team is almost synonymous with the Welsh language. I think Dafydd Iwan performing Yma O Hyd showed how we connect with supporters in a very special and unique way.”
S4C have since announced they will continue to show Wales men’s games until 2024 and are in discussions with the FAW over Welsh language coverage for the games for which Viaplay will hold the rights.
The Red Wall
Something that continues to astound Mooney is the Red Wall, which he believes is unique in world football.
“I was and am absolutely blown away by it. I knew of it, but I didn’t quite understand it. When I arrived the first thing that I was struck by was the anthem. I was taken by the fact there was no music. I knew Wales was good at signing, but I didn’t know it was that good!”
45-year-old Mooney says that The Red Wall are more than just football fans. “They are not just fans of the football team. There is a lifestyle that has built up around our supporters. It involves fashion, language, music, culture. It is quite special actually. It’s kind of a vibe that has built up around the supporters. There is almost an indie vibe to our supporters, as well as a bit of politics. There is a social consciousness there. For me, I feel that we as an organisation need to keep connecting with that. To stay alive to evolutions in thinking.”
This is something that extends to the players, Mooney taking pride in the fact that they are “really bright and very socially conscious themselves.” He says that the players are connected to how Welsh supporters are thinking.
He gives the example of Gareth Bale retweeting about the sad passing of young Red Wall member Dominic Halpin, who recently died aged just 33.
“Gareth doesn’t tweet much, the fact that he engaged with the dialogue about a member of our Red Wall who died so young shows that they really care and that they are listening.”
Senior players from both the men’s and women’s teams regularly keep in touch with Mooney, supporting and advising him. He sees their input as invaluable to the continued progression of the FAW.
“They are a great group, both teams,” he says. “It’s very much a family. We treat each other with respect. We don’t diss people just because we don’t agree with their views; dialogue is important. Excellence is the word – whether a match, a presentation or a conference. We want to reach standards of excellence.”
He grins when recalling meeting Gareth Bale after he had met the players for the first time to outline his strategy.
“Gareth actually sat down for an hour with me afterwards to ask me more about my plans, which is quite funny. It was like talking to the father of the bride about what my intentions were,” he laughs.
Mooney gathers his thoughts. He says that the FAW intend to continue to build on the structures that started through Gary Speed and Osian Roberts.
“What you hope and what I think is happening is that everyone involved – staff, players, coaches, volunteers, fans, everyone – that they buy in to what we are. We are not just a Football Association; we are a movement.”
Looking forward to the play-off game next week, Mooney is positive, yet philosophical.
“These are halcyon days for Welsh football. If we can get past Scotland or Ukraine, well then Welsh football really is at the top table of global football.
“We are a country of just over three million people. We’ve got a chance to really nail it, but we are prepared mentally if we don’t. Once they cross the white line it is down to 90 minutes. If it doesn’t happen, they’ve nailed it anyway because they’ve been to two major tournaments in the last six years. They’ll go to more. These are great days and we shouldn’t forget them because sometimes they drift away. But we have some amazing players and some amazing young talent coming through.”
He becomes more animated and bullish after thinking about his last sentence. “Nobody will fancy coming here to play us. Looking through the side, right now is the perfect time – June 2022. Right now. We are a hell of a side.”
When the whistle blows at 5pm on Sunday 5th June at the sold-out Cardiff City Stadium, Wales have the chance to create history. The Red Wall will be in full voice hoping to roar this special team to victory.
The movement is in good hands.
Read about Noel’s love of music and his favourite band The Smiths HERE
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