Ex-Spurs ace joins clubless players on mission to win new dealEVEN the greatest of careers must come to an end at some point. Every footballer knows that.
But Neale Fenn, after 15 years as a full-time professional, didn't think that his pro career would be over so early, just as he celebrated his 33rd birthday yesterday.
Career highlights are many: his debut in senior football coming in an FA Cup game at Old Trafford in Tottenham's colours, three league titles in Ireland, U20, U21 and B caps, bronze medal from the World Youth Cup, numerous appearances (and three goals) in Europe.
But that lifestyle as a full-time pro appears to be over now. In January 1997, Fenn was on a high, having made his first-team debut at the age of 19, playing for Spurs alongside Sol Campbell and Stephen Carr, against Roy Keane and Eric Cantona, in an FA Cup tie in front of 52,000 at Old Trafford.
January 2010 had a different mood, and a smaller attendance witnessing his skills, for Fenn, as he was among a batch of League of Ireland players who gathered at a training ground near Dublin airport yesterday.
Let go by their clubs at the end of last season, in spite of success in Fenn's case (he helped Bohemians win their second league title in a row), they are currently the unemployed, the club-less, the unwanted.
Fenn hopes that the fitness benefits of training on the course, run by players' union the PFAI, as well as the chance to catch the eye of any club manager who happens to be passing by, could lead to another contract and the chance to stay in the game, though probably not a full-time contract.
"It's funny to think, I have been a full-time footballer for all of my adult life. I joined Tottenham from school at 16 on a YTS, I had a good few years in England, came to Ireland with Waterford in 2003, I've played for Cork and Bohs since then, but now I may not be full-time any more," Fenn said after the first day of training on the course yesterday.
"That's just the way it has gone here, hardly any clubs will be full-time next season, there are very few full-time contracts left in Ireland, so I know I might not get another pro contract.
"I'm fine with that. It may be an adjustment, having been a full-timer for so long, but I can deal with it. I just want to play on, I feel I have more to offer and can play for another couple of years.
"I haven't had any approaches from clubs yet but hopefully this course here in the AUL will help me stay sharp and maybe get some publicity to let managers know I am still around, like the other players here.
"I have been out of football for the last few months, since I left Bohs in November, and it's only then that I realised how much I missed it, so I want to carry on, even if that means being part-time.
"The easy option for me would be to quit. If I stopped playing now I could apply for that tax rebate which came in a few years ago, that would get me a nice lump sum, but I want to carry on playing, so here I am," added Fenn.
"Yesterday was only the first day but it went well, we trained under Trevor Croly and did some good work. It's good for us all to get some proper work done on the training ground. I think most of the lads on the course would have been working on their fitness over the last while, trying to stay fit, but you need football work to stay really fit. You can work all you like in the gym or running but it's not the same as being out on a pitch, training with other lads, working with the ball, it's good for us to have."
The group of players who gathered in sunny Clonshaugh yesterday was a mixed bag. There were multiple League of Ireland title winners (Richie Baker, Bobby Ryan), players with English Premier League experience (Jason Gavin, Neale Fenn), players with a high level of experience in the UK (Liam Burns, Dave Rogers, Matt Gregg) former underage internationals (Ger Rowe, Dave Freeman, John Flood) and others who have been LOI stalwarts over the last few years (Paul Whelan, Brian Gartland).
There are options for some. Jason Gavin and Shane Robinson have offers of contracts from a second-tier club in Australia and plan to head there later this month, while Dave Rogers could end up at Cork City under Roddy Collins and Liam Burns may wind up at Galway United under Sean Connor.
But for the rest, the only hope is that a club in Ireland will find room in their budgets for the 2010 season to offer them a deal.
If there is no more work in the football sphere, the outlook is gloomy for many, as most of the players have no training or skills outside of the game. Fenn is different in a couple of ways. He's already tried his hand in the retail sector, running a men's clothing shop in Cork while he was a player there for City, along with then team-mate Joe Gamble, but that failed to work out and closed.
Now, Fenn is trying his hand in another venture, having secured the Irish franchise for a UK-based coaching course, www.just4strikers.co.uk. "I know I can't play on forever and I have a family to support so I hope this takes off," he says. "We are coaching kids from age six up, and I feel we have a lot to offer. I have experience from Ireland and England, and with the Irish international teams.
"I played with people like Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand at Spurs and, as fellow strikers, they were a great help to me. Managers were a big influence as well, people like Chris Hughton, Gerry Francis and Christian Gross. I know Gross got a hard time when he was at Spurs but I loved working under him and learned a lot. Hopefully that can take off, but I still want to play as well."
In his seven seasons in the League of Ireland, Fenn knew mainly good times, as he avoided most of the financial crises which have scarred Irish football in recent years. "I know we had pay cuts at Bohs last year, but apart from that I have been lucky, I had three years at Cork and never a problem with wages," Fenn says.
But that's not the case for Richie Baker, another of the participants at the AUL. He won league titles and played Champions League football for two clubs, Shelbourne and Drogheda United, and both clubs had financial collapses. And Baker, who played in Division One for Shels last season but is now a free agent, pointed a finger at the administrators of the league.
"I just don't have time for them (the FAI) any more," says Baker. "It's happened too much and they let the clubs away with too much, there has to be a stance at this stage. Clubs get away with not paying the players, and it's not right. I have been in the league for 11 seasons, and in those 11 seasons something went wrong, the league hasn't been run properly."
The numbers on the PFAI course may be swelled, as other out-of-contract players make an attempt to land a job. Not forgetting those still under a contract of sorts, with at least one player at Cork City reporting back for training yesterday, who on one hand has a year left on his contract but on the other has not been paid since November and is in limbo.
For Baker, it's the old cliche of deja-vu all over again. "When I was at Drogheda some of the players had a meeting with the FAI, trying to resolve some of our issues over money that was owed," Baker said.
"In the meeting I had a go as I was upset that I was going through it all over again. John Delaney assured us that these things would not happen again in the future, and then we had last year, four or five teams having problems with money, players not getting paid, and if that's the reassurance about doing something about it then I can't wait for next year."