League of Ireland goes from boom to bust
League of Ireland players who were earning €3,500 a week for 52 weeks in 2007 are now being offered just €600 for only 40 weeks
LEAGUE of Ireland professionals will join the lengthy dole queues this winter, with the golden era of earning big money at home already a fading memory.
As a nation reflects on a decade of exuberant spending, the domestic football market stands as an appropriate case study.
A few short years ago, clubs drove wages up in a period where one-upmanship took priority over fiscal prudence. Players thrived as clubs fell over themselves to add zeroes to their pay packets. The top earners took home in excess of €3,000 a week, more than they would have commanded at top-flight clubs in Scotland and in the lower divisions in England.
Even the lesser performers were securing deals worth close to six figures. Joe Gamble was offered a contract in the region of €250,000 a year by St Patrick's Athletic, who dished out over €3,500 every seven days to Gary Dempsey.
Now, Gamble plies his trade with Hartlepool, forced to move abroad to stay in the profession. Dempsey is unemployed and will travel with a squad of 16 players all in the same predicament to Norway in January to take on out-of-work pros from Finland, Sweden and the host nation in a blitz designed to find clubs for the protagonists.
The PFAI were invited to draw a team from their membership and have appointed former St Pat's and Shamrock Rovers striker Liam Kelly as manager.
"We've come under a small amount of criticism for exporting some of our best young players outside the country," admitted PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness, who has written to the FAI seeking help with funding the preparations for the trip.
"But our job is to give a service to our members, and if that service means working under the umbrella of FIFPRO (the global players' union who are staging the event) to try and find employment for them, then so be it."
What is available for the players at home? Not very much.
McGuinness feels that proper professional football here is dead, because the only clubs offering full-time training are offering 40-week contracts.
In other words, players have to sign on for social welfare until January. Sligo Rovers 'keeper Ciaran Kelly was blunt enough about his reality in the wake of his club's historic cup final win. "We're all unemployed now," he said. They have to look elsewhere for money over the winter. "The professional player is being offered between €500 and €700 gross over 40 weeks," continued McGuinness.
"That's the word. We all know there were players in this league a couple of years ago earning €3,500 a week and a lot of players earning six figures. I would say the top earner in this league next year wouldn't be earning more than €50,000."
Conor Powell, who is expected to make the trip to Oslo, has signed on to collect the dole. The highly-rated left-back parted company with Bohemians after his contract expired. He is a talented performer who should be okay in the long run but, realistically, he knows that emigration will be necessary to stay in the game full-time.
Powell went straight onto pro terms with Bohs after he completed his Leaving Cert, an avenue that is no longer available for the teenagers of today.
The late developer entered the game at a time when it seemed feasible for an individual to spend their entire career at home making a good living from football. Now, while the next generation will have to look for another day job, Powell -- with no qualifications -- is in limbo.
"It's hard to get a contract here at the minute," he said. "So you're looking at the bigger picture. I haven't any ties here really, so to go further afield wouldn't be a problem." In all, 81 players have expressed an interest in the Scandinavian trip, and they will begin training at the AUL from December 1.
Kelly aims to bring youngsters with profiles like Powell as they are more likely to be willing to move house and home.
The trip isn't a jolly-up; it's about survival. McGuinness would like to stage a similar event in Dublin in the future, with the MLS and even the Russian league expressing interest at the recent FIFPRO congress.
"When the season finishes is when the player is most vulnerable," he said. "How long can they go without getting paid?" They'd prefer not to know the answer to that question.