Footballers plying their trade in Irish domestic football attest to the hardships of sustaining a career when finances are far from certain
By Ronan Murphy
Since the birth of the English Premier League, the League of Ireland has found it difficult to compete for the attention of Irish football fans, who are more likely to support an English club than a local one. Poor attendances around League of Ireland grounds make future financial planning difficult for clubs, which makes it less likely for players to remain at a team for any longer than one or two seasons before moving on.
St Patrick's Athletic defender Ger O'Brien has agreed a contract extension with the league champions, but knows fully the difficulties of the transfer situation in Ireland, having featured for six separate senior clubs. "I've been with close to half the clubs in the league, some are even gone," O'Brien told Goal. "[Sporting] Fingal and Kildare [County] are gone.
"I can see from both points of view. There are players around the league that find a happy place and a great environment to play in, and there's others that don't get offered long term deals or clubs get into financial difficulty and they end up moving on."
The financial difficulties faced by clubs means it is difficult for them to tie players down to long-term deals, with most contracts not even lasting a full calendar year. "Players can't be unrealistic about the wages," O'Brien said. "Players can't be looking for silly money. It's not 52 week contracts, it's something like 44 weeks. They need to understand that the clubs don't have income coming in during the off-season.
"Clubs can't give out long-term deals because they don't know what kind of sponsorship will come in next year, and they're chasing their tail in those situations."
O'Brien credits Pat's' 2013 league success to the fact that the Dublin-based side were able to keep the core of their 2012 season squad, and believes that consistency is the most important factor if they are to replicate their league win in 2014. "You look at the likes of Drogheda United and Sligo Rovers who've built a team and built success, it's because they kept the same type of players and kept the majority of the squad from last season," O'Brien said.
"I don't think our success is a coincidence, it just doesn't seem to be a regular case around the league, and players can end up playing for a lot of clubs in the league because deals aren't there for them on a long term basis, or the money isn't there to offer them the deals.
"If a club can sign players for a couple of years, the players know exactly what's ahead of them, and the manager knows, and then that breeds consistency, and then success will come from that."
During the height of the Celtic Tiger era in Ireland, domestic clubs were offering high wages which ensured that they could keep their best players, but with the limited funding in the league, this was not a viable option in the long-term. O'Brien recalls how his 2009 move to Derry City collapsed due to financial problems at the Brandywell. "I signed a three-year deal with Derry and I was gone after seven or eight months. It's crazy," O'Brien admitted. "I was looking for a two-year deal at the time, but Derry because they had paid money for me were looking to tie me down to a longer deal, and then it turned out that it was never going to go anywhere near the two years, never mind the three.
"Again, it shows the state of the league. If one sponsor pulls out, or if supporters stop coming to home games, clubs find themselves chasing money. It's a downward spiral. That's the realism of it."
O'Brien feels that the current year-on-year approach can make it difficult for players to adapt to lining out for a new club every season. "You could end up playing with someone for a year, get to know them so well, and then never play with them again," the 29-year-old said.
"Unfortunately we don't have a massive pool of players, that's why we get the merry-go-round approach that we have. You look at Dundalk, they had 14 new players. To try to integrate into a team environment is difficult. They've done well, but most others struggle. [Cork City manager] John Caulfield only had two players signed when he walked in. He nearly has to build a whole new squad."
The short-term deals also make it difficult for younger players to break through, as they're rarely given the chance to make a name for themselves before being released to sign for a new club. "When you're in that one-year contract, it's hard," O'Brien said. "You look at players in England and abroad and they have four-year deals. If they don't hit the ground running in the first year, there's still the second year they can make an impact. Look at Gareth Bale when he went to Spurs first.
"When you move to a new environment, things don't happen straight away, and then you're cast off as a failure. If you're given two, three-year deals, you can show you can turn it around. It can be very frustrating. Then you have a player who does really well in the one year, but the club can't afford him, so he moves on to get a better deal on more money. You very rarely see it in any other league in the world."
The transfer merry-go-round exists because of the struggles clubs face financially, and O'Brien believes that getting more fans on the terraces could help ease the strain. "Some clubs are working on week-to-week, month-to-month, waiting for cash to come in," O'Brien said. "I've been in the league 10, 11 years, and I don't think enough is being done to get people through the doors. But we're fighting a massive monster across the water. Clubs can't bring the prices down because they need the money to pay the players. Nobody's a winner."
Already the 2014 season looks to be following the trend where most teams will have made wholesale changes to their squads, which in the long-term will do little to help fight off the massive monster across the water. Until clubs can gain a solid financial footing, there is little chance of an overhaul to this status quo.