Uncertain future for players in league limbo

Serious question: Is the League of Ireland a full- or part-time pursuit? I’ll bet most of you think you know the answer to this.

Uncertain future for players in league limbo

In 2009, I retired. The time had come, I knew, to begin my solicitor apprenticeship. I would have liked to have continued playing as I was only 29. However this was not possible as at the time, along with a handful of other League of Ireland clubs, Cork City FC was a full-time professional football club.

Full-time football involved training every morning. It meant no more excuses for being late for, or tired at, training. This was your job. 365 days of the year.

You needed to hydrate and eat correctly and at the right times so that you were able to train every day to the maximum. There was more time for gym work and rest. More time for technical and strategic work and video analysis. Players would be paid in the off-season and during pre-season.

These were significant changes from part-time football. Performances soon improved, the full-time teams were successful in the League of Ireland and in Europe. It was great while it lasted.

However as most readers will know, the changes to full-time football had serious financial implications that at one stage threatened the future of the league itself.

In 2009, it wasn’t clear how bad things would go. It was obvious though that working in a solicitor’s office was incompatible with training every morning. So I left.

A year or so later, I received a call from Tommy Dunne asking me to come back to a then mainly part-time Cork City FC.

Training had reverted back to the evenings, he told me. This suited me and I returned to a league where there were very few, if any, full-time clubs left.

But now, 10 years since Cork City first went full-time under Pat Dolan in 2004, there is a move back towards training every morning. The top clubs have been doing this for the last few years, clubs like Shamrock Rovers, Sligo and St Pat’s. This year Cork City have followed them and will be more competitive as a result.

Full-time football is back then? On the surface, it seems so, but if you delve a little deeper, you see marked differences to the full-time footballer of the late 2000s.

Today’s footballer will not, in all but the most rare of cases, be paid during the off-season or pre-season. This leaves a player in an unenviable position between November and March. He will become a free agent in November while attempting to find a club again by pre-season in January. Even when the player is successful at finding a club by January, he will train unpaid from January until March. There is very little stability or security for a player in such a system. This may have been acceptable when a player was part-time, with his job away from football providing security. But when the player has no other job, as he needs to train every morning during the week, the situation is very different.

Clearly this is neither full-time nor part-time football but a strange mixture of both. The clubs are clearly concerned not to over-commit financially. So signing players for longer than one season is unusual. There is a fear of having to pay players during a period when there is no income from gate receipts. This is understandable from clubs who are looking to survive and compete as best they can. But this development points to an uncertainty hanging over the league, an uncertainty in respect of Irish domestic football and where it is going.

The lessons of the recent past should not be forgotten. At the same time there needs to be a plan going forward in regard to the best route for the league to take. It needs leadership, vision and planning. This must come from the governing body, the FAI.

- Neal Horgan has played 325 times for Cork City.

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