Saturday 25 January 2020

Plight of the free agents highlights impact of FAI crisis

'We've just been screwed, haven't we really? Everybody on ground'

HEARTBREAKING: Seán Boyd was part the PFA Ireland training camp but unfortunately suffered a bad injury in a match against Rochdale’s U23s yesterday. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
HEARTBREAKING: Seán Boyd was part the PFA Ireland training camp but unfortunately suffered a bad injury in a match against Rochdale’s U23s yesterday. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

As the alarm bells ring around Irish football, a bunch of professionals in search of employment set their alarms for 4am yesterday morning.

The FAI's €62m liabilities were not on their mind. Without a club to their name, they were already in an uncertain winter.

PFA Ireland put on an annual training camp for individuals in limbo, with this English trip the focus for their endeavours.

They rose early on a cold Wednesday for a flight to Manchester and a bus ride to nearby Stalybridge for a game with the U23 side of League One's Rochdale.

Their mission is to do whatever it takes to stay in the sport. Fourteen players travelled with union staff and their manager, the recently retired Bohemians legend Derek Pender.

Alan Reynolds (Waterford) and Ollie Horgan (Finn Harps) also made the journey with a view to scouting potential signings. Both are struggling to get a squad together due to tight budgets.

A camera crew from Eir Sport was present, as they are making a documentary to tell the story of a camp that has run in tandem with arguably the most tumultuous period in Irish football history.

On the bus, an old clip of John Delaney decrying the ills of FIFA is passed around at the front. Gallows humour has taken hold.

League of Ireland players can only dream of the salary the CEO earned. Bar a lucky few at the top, they are on 40-42 week contracts that send them on the dole from late October to January.

And there's no guarantee of another contract, which is why this initiative matters.

"I think this is the reality of what football is about," says PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness. "The players are excited to play today, and so were we when we were putting all the gear together last night. But yet I spent yesterday in the Dáil talking about where Irish football is going.

"Somebody said to me yesterday that it's no harm that the FAI never gave us anything. If we had a league that was heavily funded by the FAI, then my God (you would wonder) what drop the league would take now.

"The effects on the league are going to be broader, in terms of sponsors, but it probably won't affect clubs and players as dramatically as other sections of the game."

In other words, they are accustomed to a perilous existence. And this is a day that brings it home.

Last week, as part of a swap with a fellow union, ex-Shamrock Rovers striker Seán Boyd (21) spent time in Finland. He did well. The strapping striker was likely to have options however this game went. Over breakfast, he spoke of his enthusiasm.

Ten minutes into it, Boyd was on the ground screaming in agony, with his cries reverbating around the largely empty venue save for reps from both sides and a handful of scouts, including a representative of a group that is taking over a club in Gibraltar.

Horgan went to the dressing room to console a player that he had on loan last term. Rochdale's first team manager Brian Barry-Murphy, the son of Cork great Jimmy, went down to offer assistance too.

Boyd's patella had popped out and back in and he required oxygen, later leaving by ambulance before being collected for the flight home and the prospect of rehab without secure employment. A scan will determine the extent of the damage.

"It's a big downer," said Pender, after his side performed admirably to register a 5-1 win over a young Rochdale group that sent in a handful of first teamers near the end, including ex-Cork star Stephen Dooley who is coming back from injury.

Boyd's setback occurred around the time that word was filtering through that Limerick FC were apparently on the way out. More misery.

Horgan managed a Finn Harps side that played in front of 5,000 home fans at the Markets Field in 2016. Neither he nor Reynolds are mad on the idea of Shamrock Rovers 'B' taking their place. The problem, they concede, is the lack of alternatives.

Pender was heartened by the work ethic of his players, a reminder of what's good in the game, but found it hard to take joy from the week.

He works in AIB and football was the talk of his office last Friday for all the wrong reasons. He concedes that comparisons with the banking crisis are inevitable.

"I can't understand how it (debt) got to that much," shrugs Pender. "I couldn't believe it. And you look at it and he (Delaney) gets a €400,000 payoff (€462,000) and off he goes, it's going to his pension.

"There's just uncertainty (for the LOI). We want to get away from the FAI and get people in to run the league and give us a better chance. It's a shame, because there's so many positives in the league, great stories and competitions and rivalries.

"But we've just been screwed, haven't we really? Everybody on the ground. I'm a fan more than anything else but you look at that and think 'How have they got away with it'?".

The search for answers continues. For players operating in an area of football where mistakes are really punished, these are strange and confusing times. But they can't afford to give up on it.

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