For the thousands of supporters who will flock to grounds around the country to cheer on their team at the start of the new season next month, it must seem like one of the most glamourous jobs around.
Cheered on with every touch, adored by supporters of all ages and making a living from a game they love. It certainly seems the stuff of dreams.
And, to a certain degree, it is. But while the return of the new SSE Airtricity League season is also a chance for renewed hope and ambitions, it’s also a key point in the personal life of a League of Ireland footballer.
They’ve made it. They’ve survived the off-season.
No, we’re not talking about the various pre-season sessions they’ve been put through but the period between the end of October and the start of the season when their very financial security is very much up in the air.
The days of 52 week contracts are remembered only by those coming up on a decade or more service to the league. The reality nowadays are 32 or 42 week contracts that tide a player over throughout the season but leave them sweating on how to pay the bills during what is one of the longest off-seasons of any league in Europe.
For many it means going on the dole or taking on part-time work. One of the almost unintentionally funny stories to emerge from the league in recent times was Ronan Finn’s transfer to Dundalk prior to Christmas 2014. The deal taking the midfielder from Shamrock Rovers to Oriel Park had been mutually agreed for some time but it took several weeks for him to actually put pen to paper as he was so busy working as a post man in the build-up to the festive period.
This is a man who not too long beforehand had played Europa League group stage football for Rovers, been heavily linked with a move to a Burnley side then on the verge of Premier League football and who last season played a pivotal role in Dundalk’s league and FAI Cup winning campaign.
Finn should be one of the league’s leading lights but like so many becomes just another body on the Live Register or seeking part-time work come the end of the season.
Richie Towell is another example. Despite a campaign last year which saw him score 29 goals in all competitions, he was technically unemployed by the time he put pen to paper on a deal with Brighton and Hove Albion at the tail end of last year.
While still waiting to make his breakthrough at the AMEX, Towell is one of the lucky ones. Like Chris Forrester and many others before them, their performances in the League of Ireland got them a move abroad where, regardless of your opinion on the various skill levels in the different leagues, the chance of having real financial certainty is a definite and understandable draw.
Towell and Forrester are largely the exceptions to the rule. There are many very good, very successful League of Ireland professionals who will never get the chance to ply their trade abroad.
Take Jason McGuinness, for example. LeagueofIreland.ie chatted to the St Patrick’s Athletic defender recently on what it’s like to be a footballer in Ireland.
Here’s a man who has won three league titles, two with Bohemians and one with Sligo Rovers, as well as two EA Sports Cups and an FAI Cup. He has played and scored in Europe, won Irish U-21 honours and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is coming up on his 300th appearance in the league – a feat he could achieve by the end of March.
At 33 though the majority of McGuinness’s career is behind him and while he still feels he has a lot to offer thoughts about his future after football are never far from the forefront of his mind.
He remembers the “good times” of 52 week contracts in an era where great Shelbourne and Bohemians sides – the latter of which he was a part of – threatened to take Irish domestic football to a totally new level.
The recession had an impact on many areas of Irish life but the League of Ireland was one of the areas that suffered most. Gone were many of the major financial backers and investors, gone were the long-term contracts and gone too were many supporters who simply couldn’t afford to attend matches in a league where there is quite often three games in the space of a week.
The biggest change for McGuinness and players of that generation was that all the power regarding their personal finances was now in the hands of the clubs and their managers.
Fans argue that there isn’t much loyalty in the League of Ireland given how frequently players transfer between major rivals but he insists it is often financial situations which dictate this.
Take the example of Killian Brennan, someone McGuinness described as a “top class” player for Pat’s in recent season. This year though Brennan will he lining out in the green and white Hoops of one of the Inchicore outfit’s biggest rivals, Shamrock Rovers.
From the outside you can almost understand why fans would be angered by such a move but McGuinness blames the system for it happening. In his view, Brennan was left without a deal for too long and when Pat Fenlon made him an offer he had little choice to take it to support his young family.
Brennan is a high profile example but sweating over contracts is nothing new in the league, with Pat’s second top goalscorer from last season Aaron Greene willing to drop down a level to the First Division with Limerick next season – a move no doubt partially motivated by the pursuit of real certainty over his future.
If Pat’s – a club who have won a trophy in each of the last three seasons – are struggling to put deals forward for their players then what chance have smaller, less successful teams got?
In that regard, it’s not always easy being a player. The games are almost like a distraction from the worries of reality.
That’s where McGuinness feels the PFAI show their worth and it’s an organisation he recommends that every player in the league joins. Not only do they help with educating players for life after football, with he personally having undertaken a sports management course fully paid for by the PFAI, but they also help in the negotiation of contracts for those who might not be as savvy in such matters.
If clubs are the employers then it’s still very much an employers’ market and all power still lies with them. However, McGuinness feels the PFAI have helped in cutting down on some of the “nasty stuff” that goes on.
“We’d hear reports of clubs fining players or docking their wages for being a few minutes late. Some of the clubs will do anything to save a bit of money but the PFAI stands by the players to make sure everything runs right,” he said.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. According to McGuinness the league has developed a lot in recent years with sports science now a big factor.
Pre-seasons of old used to be all about running but now strength and conditioning plays a big part with proper diets, training and fitness plans. The money that was in the league a decade ago might no longer be there but there is a professional standard with players more committed than ever.
The days of players drinking with fans after matches are largely a distant memory. They live right to maximise their abilities on the field and the result is a league that is arguably more competitive and entertaining than at many times of the past.
McGuinness feels that message is not getting across to the general public though. While League of Ireland supporters are a hardcore bunch, getting more people through the turnstiles each Friday night remains a constant challenge even for the most successful clubs.
When Irish football fans talk about the team they support the “we” is quite often a cross channel club such as Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal. The sad reality is that the likes of Leicester City are likely to gain more new Irish fans in the months ahead than any League of Ireland club will.
Competing with cross channel clubs has long been a problem for the league but it is one that is getting harder to fight. More and more money is being pumped into English football by the TV corporations and from next season there will be a handful of live Friday night games on Sky, effectively going head to head with the league’s most traditional match day.
According to McGuinness, the FAI need to do more to promote the offering that is here. He recalls fondly finishing school and going along to games to see some of the league’s better players but how many outside of Dundalk and Pat’s got to truly appreciate the undoubted talents of the aforementioned Towell and Forrester before their big moves to England?
There is, he insists, undoubted talent in the league but people need to be made more and more aware of it.
One real positive about the league in the last few years has been the various link-ups between clubs and third level colleges. UCD led the way in regard to scholarships for obvious reasons but in the last few years the likes of Dundalk FC and Drogheda Utd have linked up with Dundalk IT, while McGuinness is studied for a Sports Therapy and Psychology degree in the Society of Sports Therapists in Glasgow.
“I’d advise all League of Ireland players to educate themselves and to think about life after the game,” he said.
“The connections with the various colleges are something that the whole league should avail of,” he added.
Again the PFAI are a great assistance here, he says, providing both career guidance and counselling.
And so, as he prepares to enter the 15th season of his career, how would McGuinness sum it up?
“I’ve been proud to call it my job. That I was a professional footballer and worked with some great coaches.
“There are downsides with regard to the new payment regimes and players worrying about supporting themselves and their families from a financial aspect but I wouldn’t have rathered to do anything else,” he said.
McGuinness will no doubt be hoping to challenge for further honours to add to his impressive CV in the year ahead but what of the long-term future.
“I hope to manage in the League of Ireland in the coming years,” he said, adding that he has completed his UEFA B Licence already.
With a sound head, good footballing brain and bundles of experience, don’t be surprised to see McGuinness in a dug out somewhere in the years ahead.
If and when that happens he will arguably be one of the lucky ones. There are, after all, only so many management and coaching roles around.
For the rest of the heroes we cheer on from the stands each Friday night, the uncertainty and worries about the future are a very real concern.
For the few hundred players who pull on a League of Ireland jersey this season, that concern is parked for the time being. A new season brings a new lease of life to all.
The months will pass quickly though and it will quickly become a worry again.
It will take the coming together of all parties to try and address those concerns but we, the fans, can play our part in the interim. We have a fantastic league on our shores. Let’s endeavour to support it in 2016 like never before and encourage more and more along to matches.
Image: @SligoRovers via Twitter