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Anxious wait for Irish on football futures

Being a free agent this summer means nerves, caution and insecurity as clubs face into unknown

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LUCKY ONE: Shane Long has a new two-year deal at Southampton. Photo: PA

LUCKY ONE: Shane Long has a new two-year deal at Southampton. Photo: PA

LUCKY ONE: Shane Long has a new two-year deal at Southampton. Photo: PA

Shane Long remains a Saint but Jonny Hayes is no longer one of the Bhoys. And Dubliner Hayes is slowly finding out that being a footballer in your 30s without a contract in the Covid-19 age is no picnic.

There is some comfort for footballers over the age of 30 in the fact that contracts are still being handed out, with Southampton signing Long (33) for another two-year stint.

Many Celtic fans are surprised that the club announced last week that Hayes (32) would leave the club, having won a third successive league title with Neil Lennon's side.

The former Cherry Orchard man was not one of the first names on the team sheet (just five league starts last season) but neither was he one of the biggest earners at the club. And despite his versatility in terms of position, Hayes is now out of contract.

Being a free agent this summer - unless you are one of the big names being touted on Sky Sports like Jadon Sancho and Kai Havertz - is filled with nerves, caution and insecurity.

Clubs across Britain are unable to make too many plans, without knowing what league they'll be in next season or how their budgets for next term will be affected by behind-closed-doors football for the foreseeable future.

Hayes is a case in point. He was immediately linked with a move to his previous club Aberdeen, but their manager came out and said they were in no position to recruit someone like Hayes as the focus was on the players they already had on their books.

Preston was also mentioned as a destination for Hayes, but their senior official Peter Ridsdale - a man who splashed money about like it was water when he was at Leeds United - preached poverty.

Stressful

"Our first concern is to make sure we can pay those players that are contracted to us. This is not the time to be talking about bringing in other players and adding to what we have got," Ridsdale said of the link with Hayes.

Hayes will find a club, but it could be a stressful summer for other Irish players.

Most lower-league clubs in England have held off on naming the 'retained list' of players, due to the delay and confusion over the season's end arising from Covid-19.

Clubs like Swindon and Crewe are assuming that they have already been promoted to the third tier, but with no resolution in the Championship and League One on whether clubs will be relegated, nothing is certain.

Seven Irish players in the lower leagues in England already know their fate and have been released: Darron Gibson (Salford), Samir Carruthers (Cambridge), Bradley Garmston (Grimsby), Corey O'Keeffe (Birmingham), Conrad Logan (Mansfield), Alan Sheehan and Lee Frecklington (both Lincoln),

In Scotland, Hayes and another Dubliner, David McMillan (St Johnstone), have also been let go.

But a number of current or former internationals are also anxious over their futures as their deals expire at the end of this month.

In the Premier League, Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Kieran O'Hara (Manchester Utd) and Rob Elliot (Newcastle Utd) are waiting for news of a new deal.

In the Championship, Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), Stephen Ward (Stoke) and Anthony Pilkington (Wigan) are out of contract at the end of the month.

Similarly in League One, Glenn Whelan (Fleetwood), Stephen Quinn (Burton Albion) and Daryl Murphy (Bolton) are all playing the waiting game.

The same for Eddie Nolan and Paul Green (both Crewe) in League Two.

That's just the players who have been capped at senior level.

Jimmy Dunne (Burnley) and Kieran Sadlier (Doncaster) were named in the Irish squad but now face an anxious wait over their futures.

So does Eoin Doyle (Swindon), whose contract is due to expire.

Players who have rarely had to worry about their contracts, now find possible employers in a 'wait-and-see' mood.

It's not all grim. The new deal which keeps Long at Southampton until 2022, is merited. Burnley have signed Robbie Brady for an extra 12 months, which is a relief for him to have his future secure after an injury-scarred season. And Hendrick won't be short of offers, the Dubliner already linked with AC Milan and other Premier League clubs, while Burnley will also be keen to retain him.

Brighton showed their faith in 21-year-old defender Warren O'Hora by offering him a 12-month contract extension, next season will be a big one for the former Bohemians man as he bids to make the breakthrough.

Fleetwood were more than happy with the impact Whelan made after his mid-season arrival from Hearts. Joey Barton's side were unbeaten when Whelan played as they pushed for promotion.

Deal

A new deal would probably have been on the table for Whelan, but Fleetwood - due to compete in the League One play-offs which has no set date - don't know what division they'll be in next term.

Whelan had shrugged off his age (36) and proved his fitness by playing in every minute of every game, two matches a week, for Fleetwood while the club which ditched him at Christmas, Hearts, slid into the Scottish second tier. So Whelan has another season in him, at some level.

As does Stoke's Stephen Ward, who told this newspaper back in March that he had every intention of extending his career into next season.

Southampton had made positive noises about retaining Long in the pre-Covid time and backed that up with a new deal.

Hayes says he'd had talks with Celtic about a new deal in December, but that vanished into thin air once the season was held up by coronavirus.

"When it comes down to the decision being made, I don't know if the financial impact the virus has had on Scottish football has contributed to it or not," said Hayes, answering his own question.

Players will be signed this summer, and the likes of Long and Whelan will look 12 months into the future and hope their legs can carry them for another year, to take them up to the European Championships.

But as Hayes found out, clubs are cutting their cloth post-Covid, and a salary cap in the Championship and Leagues One and Two is inevitable.

And the chunky contracts on offer just six months ago may no longer be there - unless your name is Jadon Sancho.