If the strength of an industry can be judged by how its most vulnerable are treated, then the League of Ireland has deep problems.
The issue of player welfare becomes particularly acute at this time of year as most participants in the league are effectively unemployed and without an income from the game just as the outlay pressures associated with Christmas loom.
It is why the notion of being a professional footballer in Ireland remains a fallacy, a reality borne out by a recent survey published by FIFPro, the international group of players’ unions.
Once the last set of League of Ireland fixtures were contested on October 28, the vast majority of players were deemed free agents and began searching for their next source of income.
More than 60% of players can no longer rely on the industry to provide their sole salary, forcing them to take second jobs for supplementary income.
While the Christmas rush at An Post perennially provides an opportunity for a clutch of players to keep busy for a few weeks during the off-season, tales of others missing matches due to work commitments are increasingly commonplace.
An analysis of wage levels explains the necessity. Of the 176 League of Ireland players across the two divisions who contributed to the FIFPro study, just two earned more than €900 per week, with half grossing between €140-450 on the same pay interval. Most worryingly, however, was the 20% being paid a measly €70 per week. And that’s only for 42 weeks of the year.
“You try put aside some money throughout the season for Christmas but that’s not always easy,” admitted Killian Brennan, a league stalwart and one of the scores without guaranteed employment for the new season.
Stephen McGuinness, secretary of the Players Football Association of Ireland (PFAI), is adamant the requirements to comply with a minimum wage are being breached by some clubs. The PFAI noted with interest the Scottish FA publicly taking certain clubs to task last week for abusing the equivalent rate in their jurisdiction.
Within Ireland, employers are legally bound to pay no less than €9.15 per hour, a figure due to increase on Sunday by 10 cent.
Given that the general routine for players on the League of Ireland circuit is to train three times per week, playing at least once in that period, then the average time commitment of 15 to 20 hours would seem to arouse suspicion about compliance levels across the clubs.
A move towards engaging players on amateur terms, even in the Premier Division, coincided with the hit on player income levels. In this type of arrangement, clubs need only pay a tax-free sum to cover expenses.
The precarious nature of employment contracts affects the clubs negatively too.
Wexford, one of the league’s newest entities, suffered an exodus of key players in October, just as the business end of the season beckoned. Since being relegated, the recently-announced switch to a reduced top-flight of 10 teams from 2018 means it could be several years before they escape the First Division again.
Wexford’s predicament, attracting home crowds in the mid-hundreds and with little by way of commercial turnover, is not unique for a League of Ireland club.
Five of their important players upped sticks — not to rival clubs offering money — instead accepting the offer of work and a life in New Zealand. Pay for play was just one element to the enticement by Southern United, but the stability of coaching jobs in the community was the clincher.
The modest rewards available to players also means that the minority in greatest demand must assess the bigger picture.
To the neutral, Ronan Finn’s decision earlier this month to quit a Dundalk side chasing four titles in a row defied logic.
Despite Shamrock Rovers still appearing some way off bridging the gap to the Lilywhites, the temptation of a three-year deal, along with access to employment outside of the game, convinced the midfielder to jump ship.
Within an industry plagued by short-termism, Rovers can benefit by operating beyond the here and now. Their former manager Trevor Croly used to talk up the club’s aversion to integrating “cars and houses” into contract offers but the advantage they have through access to the business sector aided their pursuit of Finn, now 29 and eager to utilise the degree he worked hard to attain.
Back in the mainstream of the 500 players that will eventually be attached to the 20 clubs for the new season, pre-season training commences next week, typically restarting their salary payments.
In anybody’s language, the endurance preparation involved constitutes working time, yet two of the clubs won’t initiate payroll until the fixture list kicks off at the end of February.
Several more adopted a similar policy last year.
Whatever about the lowly pay rates, much of the firefighting undertaken by the union throughout this decade has been devoted to getting players paid simply what they are contractually owed.
Waterford United and Athlone Town were the latest culprits, leaving players unpaid for several weeks during the last First Division campaign, though McGuinness is relieved to report the arrears are being settled ahead of licencing announcements due next month.
Budgets of clubs will have been approved by the governing body then.
As former Cork City player Neal Horgan pinpoints in his second book Second City — The Fall, Death and Rise of Cork City FC, the perceived yearning for a return to full-time football is foolhardy in the absence of real leadership, vision, and investment by the FAI.
Branding specialist Jonathan Gabay may have opined otherwise recently in his comical report for the association, but there is a bleakness to the domestic product which blights every aspect, especially the earning ability of players.
The promise of increased prize money and national marketing spend that accompanied the FAI’s takeover of the league from 2007 initially materialised only to vanish as the association’s finances deteriorated.
Dissent from clubs is suppressed by the straitjacket of the Participation Agreement they are compelled to sign should they be accepted into either division.
One prominent First Division club is still seeking a main sponsor having lost theirs from last season.
The departing company’s rationale was simple — loyal as they wanted to be to a local club, they received no media exposure for their contribution.
Consigning two additional clubs to what’s regarded as the graveyard of the second tier from 2018 will compound, rather than ease, the likes of these operational obstacles.
Unless those at the top get their act together, then the players will continue to be caught in the crossfire.
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