On June 18th, Airtricity Premier Division team Monaghan United pulled out of the league because of “mainly financial” reasons. A club statement read:
“The reason we have taken this decision is mainly but not only financial. To keep a team playing at the highest level in this country is expensive and with the clubs inability to tie down an anchor sponsor, coupled with the rising costs of membership of senior football and the lack of support from the national league”
The lack of support was evident, when at the time of this crisis FAI Chairman John Delaney was celebrating with Irish fans in Poland, leaving League of Ireland supporters on Twitter feeling disgruntled about what they saw as their team playing second fiddle.
The situation some clubs face meant that there was a lot of uncertainty for players regarding wages and contracts. And Monaghan United weren’t the only strugglers last season. Another League of Ireland side faced a similar scenario, due to overspending.
“At one stage we were meant to be going out of existence. The manager wasn’t getting paid, some players hadn’t been paid in weeks and backlogged money was only coming to them. It was pretty bad for a while,” said a player moving up the ranks at the debt-ridden club.
“Whenever I was in the team talks, the manager was just saying to the players to not think about it and just get on with the game, but it was bothering some of the players. Even I, as one of the amateurs brought in, could see that. They didn’t know where their income was going to come from.
“The club couldn’t afford to pay a full squad of players, so they worked with less paid players and filled up the squad with players like myself. I signed an amateur contract at the beginning of the season, so they didn’t need to pay me at all”, said the youth player.
A league source confirmed that clubs were in a better position than they were 5/6 years ago, when the wages some of the clubs were paying amounted to most of their turnover, or in Drogheda United’s case when they went in to examinership shortly after winning the league title in 2007, more than their turnover.
“Even after Shamrock Rovers went into examinership themselves, in 2005, other clubs were not learning their lesson. It’s common knowledge around the league that clubs like St Pats, Cork City and Drogheda United were paying some of their players €2,500 a week. These players were getting that weekly wage on three year deals - some of them anyway. Drogheda was the biggest disaster,” said the league source.
“It was happening around the time of the Celtic Tiger, where clubs that were paying that kind of money were invariably clubs that had property developers behind them.”
The source continued:
“When the property crash hit Ireland in 2007, it was no surprise that some of these clubs had to pay and the Drogheda situation confirmed how quickly it went downhill.”
“Clubs are much more wary now. It’s very rare that you see a club handing out a two year deal, never mind three. It would have to be one of the best players and the most anyone would be making in this league is €1,000 - €1,100 per week, and that’d be at Shamrock or Sligo Rovers.”
The two clubs mentioned above are the only two remaining professional outfits in the league and also the most successful in the past three years.
So with much more stringent procedures going on in the Airtricity League, with regards to players’ wages, why were clubs in such trouble?
“It was fans. We were basically not getting numbers in the gates. And without the gate receipts, they couldn’t afford to pay the players. The team was struggling at the time and nobody was coming to watch. For example, my debut at the end of the season, there was a really poor attendance.
“I’d estimate over 1,000 at one game, because it was a derby, but even that is pretty low.” The youth footballer admitted.
The League of Ireland has a set pricing throughout the country on tickets, with Adults charged €15, concessions €10 and €5 for children.
The club mentioned were pulled out of trouble and stayed up under their young manager, who promised our source amongst others, that if he was still involved, he would sign them up for the coming season on a paid contract. He wasn’t and even after the new manager took charge, there was no contact from the club.
“It was disappointing, because I’d finally broken into the first team at the end of the season, came on for my debut and made the winning goal. When I joined the club at 17, it was them who approached me and said basically the aim was to eventually promote youth players into the first team.”
That didn’t happen, as the club not only didn’t get in contact with the player, but let go of almost all their youth players that were involved in the previous season. The teenager is currently playing football on a full time course, but with owners not wanting to risk paying unproven players, his footballing career is in the balance.
In his case, he has time on his hands, however, this is not the situation facing all league of Ireland footballers without a club. Stephen O’Flynn was capped for Ireland at under-age level. He’s played in England and for a host of professional teams in Ireland, including Cork City, Limerick and most recently St Patricks Athletic, but after two injury ravaged season’s the striker is without a club, and in turn without a wage.
“I’ve been playing football full-time since I was 15. It’s all I know. I went over to Wimbledon in London, when they were a Premier League side and I was there for a couple of years. I didn’t make the grade but came back to Ireland and started playing league of Ireland and that’s what I’ve been doing for 12 years, but because I got a few unlucky injuries, clubs don’t want to take the risk”, said Stephen.
O’Flynn broke his knee-cap with Limerick FC two years ago and last season broke his ribs at St Pat’s. The Cork native is only 30 years old and with only a junior cert to fall back on will have a difficulty finding work outside of football.
“I’m after doing a security course because I haven’t had any offers. I realise my time could be up now and I have to reassess my life”, he said.
Despite realising that it may be time to move on, O’Flynn is annoyed at how it went while playing at an apparent semi-professional level last season.
“They say we’re semi-pro and pay us semi-professional wages. Nobody at Pat’s was getting more than €450 a week. I was earning less, but the club did facilitate us if we wanted to get a job, because we were training at 4:30pm, four evenings a week. How is that semi-professional?” He exclaimed.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Gary Rogers – league title winning goalkeeper at Sligo Rovers, and at the age of 29, heading into the second year of his contract is somewhat safe and injury permitting, he still has many years left in football. However, this is something not to be taken for granted as he is in the process of applying for a sports management degree course that will begin next September.
Yet, even while everything seems rosy at the moment, there have been a few issues at some of the goalkeepers clubs, including towards the end of last season, but which didn’t affect him:
“The club didn’t give out new contracts before we won the league. Some of the players were disappointed it wasn’t sorted out quicker but it’s the same at every club.”
This is believed to have led to the exits of Mark Quigley and Jason McGuinness who both moved to Shamrock Rovers.
Rogers was affected by a financial dispute while playing Europa League qualifiers with St Pats, having to travel for days to places such as Kazakhstan:
“The club organised bonuses for us for the first round and when we got through to the next round, they wouldn’t talk to us further. Players had to take time off work which meant they had a loss or earnings.
“We ended up going on strike on the day of the Karpaty Lyiv game, not because anyone wanted to, but because we had no choice. It was the only way we could get through to the board”, explained the former Saints goalkeeper.
The League of Ireland has had its problems over the years, affecting all parties. The weekly income that peaks at €1,000 a week for only the very best players is not enough for a career spanning 15-20 years, which has probably made talented footballers to pursue safer career options that will earn them a living into their sixties. Some say that the league has overcome its most difficult stage but with some players at lower clubs such as UCD and Bray playing for free in order to keep clubs afloat, the league may be in danger of becoming completely amateur in the future.
To avoid this, they need more support from fans and “need to offer longer contracts to their players, to sustain and build their teams up” a league source confirmed.
However with no new way of generating money, clubs will struggle to progress.