Thursday 21 September 2017

Player power sails uncomfortably close to catastrophe

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

'No club has gone to the wall because players pushed it to the wall.' These were PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness's words in March of last year when he spoke about the financial trouble faced by many League of Ireland clubs. His comments nearly came back to haunt him three days ago.

Before every European fixture, the directors of each club meet for lunch with the match delegate from UEFA. I have attended 12 of these in the past as CEO of St Patrick's Athletic, but was present on Thursday as an invited guest of the club ahead of their game with FC Karpaty from Ukraine. I find them fairly tedious affairs at the best of times, but given the announcement only 20 minutes earlier that the players were refusing to turn up and play, it will always be one of the most memorable.

The future of the club, the livelihoods of so many, and the already battered reputation of domestic football were all at stake. It was hard for us to fathom how it had come to this. Supporters approached the club with their savings, the FAI intervened to mediate, some players decided to break the picket line and offered to play, while anyone following the story was left to ponder the implications if the game didn't go ahead. I asked the UEFA delegate for his view, and his answer was merely one word: catastrophic.

The players were dissatisfied with the club's response to their initial request for appearance money, win bonuses, and out-of-pocket expenses incurred in this season's Europa League. From my understanding of the situation, their concerns and gripes seem justified. To feel as if you are being taken for granted, rightly or wrongly, or that your efforts are not properly rewarded, is infuriating. However, as a direct result of their decision to refuse to play, the club was only hours from being shut down for good.

As ever, there is more than one side to the story. The amounts involved are now known, but in the midst of the dispute one figure jumped out. The squad were demanding €20,000 to appear in the game that night. Obviously, my past association with the club will lead many to believe I am incapable of an objective take on what occurred but I was a professional footballer for a lot longer than I was a CEO and I've yet to hear any plausible case for including a demand for appearance money on the players' wish-list. Even during my time negotiating European bonuses when there was considerably more money available, not one player had the front to ask to be paid an additional sum to appear in a game in which he was already contractually obliged (and paid a wage) to do so. I would have dismissed it immediately had I still been there, and fully supported the decision of the board to do the same.

This point appeared to have been lost amid all the talk of players' rights. Yet the impression was given that the players were being shafted by the club for relatively small amounts to which they were entitled. This wasn't the case.

St Pat's will lose money this season, despite the extra income from their European run. The players, as they tend to do every year, were very selective when it came to sharing the spoils with the club from the various competitions in which they compete. They usually leave the finances from the League, League Cup, FAI Cup and Setanta Cup to the club. All are loss-makers. When it comes to the few weeks of games in the Europa League, they are desperate to demonstrate their pivotal roles and their sense of entitlement to any profit made. It is the same almost everywhere. Regardless of the legitimacy of their feelings, though, I fail to see how threatening to strike was the tactic best suited to expressing this disgust.

So what of the role of the PFAI in all this? It is worth noting that the option of taking industrial action such as this has been mentioned several times by McGuinness in the past, understandably upset by the treatment of many of his members by some clubs in recent years. Whatever club was next to fail to meet certain standards of practice as they saw it, it appeared the threat of strike action would never be too far from the table. Despite being one of the few clubs with an unblemished record in honouring fully all playing contracts in recent years, it seems St Pat's were just unlucky it was them.

In any reasoned analysis, the decision to release a statement refusing to play was ill-advised and petulant. If the threat was indeed a serious one, the club would have been unable to take the financial hit and the likelihood would have been all players would have been jobless overnight. And because of inadequate notice, the strike would not have been deemed a legitimate one, so all players would have been personally liable to be sued for the financial cost to the club of their actions. Depending on their input, the PFAI may well have had a case to answer there also. Bringing a club with 82 years behind it to within hours of being wound up can only be seen as a disproportionate response to relatively minor grievances. If the threat was always designed as a bluff, they appeared to have little appreciation of how damaging their words would become.

Clubs and players have clashed over issues of far greater seriousness in the past and it never came to this. With the backing of the PFAI, it looks like players are prepared to 'push clubs to the wall' after all.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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