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Things will never be the same: Route to England will be harder in post-virus world as clubs struggle

 

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PREPARED: Alan McCormack is not stressed out about what is coming next after football

PREPARED: Alan McCormack is not stressed out about what is coming next after football

PREPARED: Alan McCormack is not stressed out about what is coming next after football

It's not often that events at little Colchester United can cause a ripple of after effect that not only hits English football but reaches Irish shores too.

But the announcement by that cub earlier this week that they would be letting go four senior players when their contracts expire in June, and were also releasing 12 academy players, is a warning sign of how serious a threat Covid-19 is to football in the lower leagues in England, a threat which could see English clubs die but also have Irish victims too.

And Ireland will, inevitably, be caught up - at this moment, 34 players eligible for Ireland play in League Two, England's fourth tier, 24 of them Irish-born. Two teams are managed by Dubliners (Mark Kennedy at Macclesfield Town, Graham Coughlan at Mansfield Town) while former internationals Alan McLoughlin (Swindon's academy manager) and Noel Hunt (Swindon assistant) are among the Irish who have coaching positions at that level.

Veteran

Wicklow-born goalkeeper Barry Roche, on the playing and coaching staff at League Two side Morecambe and a veteran of 22 years in English football, sees a very stark outlook for clubs, and for Irish players, in the lower leagues.

"Clubs will fold, I don't think there's any doubt about that. You saw clubs like Macclesfield in trouble this season even before Covid-19, and we were told of other clubs who were on the verge of going into administration before this happened," says Roche.

He managed just 13 games in five years at Nottingham Forest (2000-05) but in subsequent spells with Chesterfield (2005-08) and Morecambe (2008-present) Roche was highly rated and practically an ever-present, over 500 league games on his CV. This season however, even before Covid-19, his playing career had taken a back seat to his role as goalkeeping coach at Morecambe.

Since he left Dublin schoolboy club Leicester Celtic as a 16-year-old Roche (38) was always employed and employable. Now back-up 'keeper at Morecambe where he's on the staff as goalkeeping coach, he knows that safety net for this generation of Irish players may no longer be there post-coronavirus as those clubs which survive will have to adapt.

"I don't see us finishing the league. The Premier League may finish, possibly the Championship, but I can't see League One and Two being finished," he says.

"And if the options for an Irish lad over here are to wait things out and hope for a contract if and when football is back, or to go home to Ireland, move back in with the parents and save a few hundred quid a month on rent and then try to play League of Ireland when that resumes, you will see players doing that. As much as they might want to remain in England, going home could be the only option.

"There are 30-odd Irish lads playing in League Two now, I can't see that number being here next year, you will see people going home to Ireland."

Paid

Dubliner Alan McCormack, who has spent 16 seasons in England and Scotland and is currently on furlough but being paid, like the rest of his Northampton Town team-mates, admits it's the UK's state funding of wages which has kept football alive.

"If the government scheme was't there, we'd be into double figures of clubs who had to fold," says McCormack.

"We want to see football survive, no one wants to see clubs going under but clubs in our leagues are struggling massively with no revenue from week to week. I'd hate to see a club that's been around for 100 years go bust, for something beyond their control."

Roche, in his 12th season at Morecambe, says his club's habit of living within their means will keep them alive as their average wage for a player of £600 a week is affordable.

"Clubs in this league are paying players £4,000 or £5,000 a week in wages and now they have to try and find that money without gate revenue so it will be a wake-up call but at a cost as clubs will go by the wayside. As a club, Morecambe run things well, they have never over-spent and they are in a better position than a lot of clubs in this league. We've never over-paid players," Roche says.

Now 36, McCormack has spent half of his life in Britain.

Having joined Preston from Stella Maris as a 16-year-old, he had spells with Orient, Southend, Motherwell, Charlton, Swindon, Brentford and Luton before joining Northampton Town last summer. He is able to count the days until his contract ends, his future with the club and, indeed, as a professional in doubt.

"Our contracts will be honoured until they run out but for me that means June 30, after that I don't know," says McCormack, optimistic that the league season can resume.

"I think the season will be finished, the next two weeks are vital in terms of what the UK government do, I can see things opening up in June," he says.

"But football will change after this, people need to look after their finances, players need to think of other ways to get income."

He's been thinking of a post-playing career for some time, so he's not as stressed as many colleagues who have stretched themselves financially.

"I'm not too worried, I have been thinking about this stage for a few years, wondering if each year could be my last year, so it's been a case of having things on the side that will help generate income for me and my family when I'm not playing any more," McCormack says.

"When you are young and earning good money you don't think long-term, you think about going out and enjoying yourself, having the nice things in life, but I have tried to plan," added McCormack, who will accept his fate if retirement is forced on him by circumstances.

Roche's playing contract also expires at the end of next month, making for anxious times. "You are entitled to a month's severance pay for July if you don't get a club but I can guarantee every out-of-contract player will be going for that," Roche says.

He predicts a salary cap to become reality. "They will have to do things differently, but at a cost as clubs will go by the wayside," Roche says.

The implications of Brexit on the movement of Irish players to the UK have been ignored since the coronavirus hit, but new rules post-Brexit, on top of the financial pain on lower league clubs, will make the route to England trickier for Irish talent, giving some no option but to stay at home until they turn 18.

That could be a positive, says Roche, who had been travelling regularly to Leeds United from the age of 13 to 15 and had agreed to join them at 16, only to sign for Nottingham Forest instead.

"I don't see that as a bad thing, if you stay on beyond 16. You go to England with an education behind you," Roche admits. "I didn't do that. With all this going on, more Irish lads will stay at home, finish school, and I feel if you're good enough at 16, you'll still be good enough at 18, they will come over here more rounded people with an education.

"But football in England will be very, very different this time next year."