Keith Fahey: Our league will never set you up for life, but we have to build something better
Out-dated facilities and inconsistent standards holding us back but we still produce players who go on to make the Irish team
When I agreed to come back to the League of Ireland in 2014 after five years away in England, I knew that my football life was going to be different.
I wasn't deluded. The working existence of a footballer in Ireland is a world away from what you experience at the highest level in the UK, so it would be wrong to place any stock in those comparisons. What I wanted to find out was if things had changed at home since I'd left St Pat's for Birmingham.
Back then, Pat's were spending a lot of money trying to conquer Europe. We were training full-time up in Celbridge and trying to do things like they were done in England as much as possible: you'd have food at training, a full-time kitman making sure your gear was laid out when you arrived in the morning, little things like that.
There was a spike in wages too and, as players, we were naturally happy with that because every footballer worries at some point about whether they'll be able to earn enough to look after them for the long run. It wasn't our job to question the spending.
When I landed back, the situation at Pat's had changed. It felt things had gone backwards a little bit. I didn't mind bringing my kit home after training; you can't get hung up on things like that. But it just felt like the game here hadn't really progressed at all.
I don't want to slate the league. I appreciate that clubs have a tough job making ends meet.
I went to Shamrock Rovers last season, and Pat Fenlon tried to do everything as professionally as he could within the budget. But you're still going out training in the AUL with no privacy. You'd never know who was going to be there, with all kinds of other teams coming and going.
And it did make me wonder if things are ever really going to move on from this. The wages around the league now are probably comparable to the level when I started in 2003.
Some of the facilities are the same, the dressing-rooms, the toilets, all that stuff. There is licensing, which is supposed to apply a standard, but there always seems to be exceptions to the rule.
Players are looking after themselves better, that's for sure. It's a younger league too, I'd noticed that when I came back. Some of the lads might not be as talented as players they are up against but they won't give you a second.
Still, if there's one word that's missing, it's consistency.
People will sometimes ask you how the League of Ireland rates compared to the various divisions in England - League One, League Two or whatever. But there's no point even considering that question.
In the lower leagues across the water, there is a certain standard that applies: they're all properly full-time, well-supported by the locals, generally have their own training facility, and players and supporters have an idea what to expect every week.
Over here, there's huge gaps in standards under every heading, from where clubs train, to how often they train, to the quality of their players.
Some parts of the year, there's six or seven games in 21 days, which isn't ideal for players and is even worse for supporters, who have to pick and choose games because tickets are just too expensive - there should be a €10 flat rate for all games in my opinion.
Other times, you might go without a match for a couple of weeks, and the off-season is four months long.
On the pitch, you could have two or three ex-internationals on one side and two or three lads who've just come straight out of the Leinster Senior League on the other.
The only thing that's consistent is the places where you know the away dressing-room is going to be a disgrace.
Despite that, we are still producing players who will go on to play for the international team. I think Chris Forrester will get in there, and there was a big push for Richie Towell last year too, which was a bit blown out of proportion I feel. There's players like Brandon Miele (Shamrock Rovers) and Daryl Horgan (Dundalk) who could easily go over and get that bit of luck.
The Ireland squad at the moment has a lot of lads that came through the League of Ireland route and I've been asked if, on reflection, I wish I'd stayed at home when I was a teenager instead of going across to Arsenal.
But I don't think that would have suited me. I probably needed the experience of being knocked down to toughen me up. I signed for Arsenal because I wasn't interested in anyone else - I was an Arsenal fan and just wanted to know where to sign.
But I couldn't settle; I was in and out of different digs, didn't like living in a stranger's house. It just wasn't for me.
I went to Aston Villa and things didn't work out for me either, but that was a personal thing. I don't think you can generalise and say every player should do one thing. I matured later than most. Some lads take to it like a duck to water.
I went into an Ireland dressing-room and there was Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne. . . they'd been in England from the start and made unbelievable careers for themselves.
What I would say is that clubs should look at the psychological side of things more than they do, assess the different characters and their needs rather than just treating everyone the same.
Young lads will always want to go away because they will be afraid the chance will never come again.
However, I think the new U-17 national league and the plans for an U-15 version are a good thing. It's about time that the League of Ireland clubs did something in that department. Even if their players still go to England when they are 16, they'll have an affiliation with a club if they end up coming home.
I didn't really have anyone to speak to when I came back from Villa. Agents are only interested when there's something to sell, and the stats about the amount of lads that come back and never play again are frightening.
We have to try and build something better here, much as you're never going to be able to look at the League of Ireland as a job that can look after you when you have to retire.
There's no pension. There are 'professional players' but they aren't paid for 52 weeks. It's 36 or 40 or 42. There's a lot of guys making what is nearly a full-time commitment for part-time wages.
I rang some insurance companies when I came home to talk about getting cover in case I picked up a career-ending injury.
At Birmingham, I was on a policy which offered that service: there was a selection of brokers looking for the business. Here, there's nothing in place at all. If you're injured, you're injured and that's it.
So while you might be able to earn enough to keep you ticking along when you're playing here, you'd be foolish to think it could offer long-term security.
I got the opportunity to earn a good wage in England and I'm grateful for that, but retiring last year was a bigger shock to the system than I anticipated. It was great for a few weeks, a bit of time off and then all of a sudden I thought 'What am I going to do with my time?' Suddenly, there's no income. I was in denial about it for a few months.
I've gone back to college to do a personal training course and I'm enjoying it. Granted, it was tough at first. It feels like I'm starting in the real world. When you're playing, football is your life, it's your identity. You get up every day and you're a footballer and that's it.
In England, everything is done for you. There's always a man with a number who sorts it. It's easy to get caught in a bubble; you never have to think outside the box.
When I was a kid at Arsenal, we were told to go to school but we had no interest when we were playing. I remember a good friend of mine telling me just a few years ago to get another plan in place because I wouldn't be playing forever, and I brushed him off. All I could think about was football, football, football.
With the college work, I'm using my brain again and it feels good. I realise now that I should have prepared for this earlier because in Ireland, there always has to be a Plan B. No matter who you are, it can all end very quickly.
Keith Fahey spent time on the books of Arsenal, Aston Villa, St Patrick's Athletic, Drogheda United, Birmingham City and Shamrock Rovers. He was capped 16 times by Ireland under Giovanni Trapattoni. Fahey (33) retired from football last year.