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League of Ireland stars to follow shoppers over border

IT'S NOT JUST shoppers from the Republic who will be fleeing across the border to the North -- hard-pressed footballers may also make an exodus from the cash-strapped League of Ireland.

The harsh reality of life in the domestic game hit home yesterday when the PFAI, the players' trade union, published a list of 120 players who are currently out of contract and looking for work.

There are some heavy hitters on the list with senior internationals (Jason Byrne, Joseph Ndo), multiple league winners (Bobby Ryan, Colin Hawkins) and players with cross-channel experience (Glen Cronin, Karl Moore, Chris Fagan, Danny North).

But with only a tiny handful of LOI players currently under contract for next season -- most of them at Shamrock Rovers -- it's bound to be a grim winter for those in the domestic game.

Irish League clubs are already sniffing around some of the best talent in the Republic and clubs up north could open up an influx of players from the south when the transfer window opens in January.

Players will also be tempted to move to Britain; Enda Stevens is set to leave Shamrock Rovers for Aston Villa when the Hoops' European campaign is over and Sligo Rovers captain Richie Ryan is close to finalising a deal with Dundee United.

But other players may find they have no option other than to take up offers in the English non-league scene or the lower leagues of Scotland with so few employment opportunities here.

Uncertainty surrounds the plans of Bohemians, St Pats and Dundalk for next season.

And despite their success last season in winning trophies and qualifying for Europe, it's likely that the playing budgets at Derry City and Sligo Rovers will be slashed.

Throw in uncertainty over the long-term structure of the league, with talk of a top six/bottom six split on the way as well as a regionalised First Division, and the outlook appears gloomy.

Some players may opt to throw in the towel and retire, to take advantage of the generous tax rebate on offer -- under a scheme brought in during the boom years, professional sportsmen (including LOI players) can get a rebate of 50pc of the tax they paid once they formally declare their intention to retire.

"That's not on the agenda for me. I want to play on as I feel I have a lot more to offer," says striker Jason Byrne, who lined out for Dundalk last season but is now a free agent from a club which has no manager since the axing of Ian Foster.

"I am only two goals behind Pat Morley in the all-time scorers list so I want to carry on and get ahead of Morley, that's one goal for me anyway.

"But I feel I have something to offer the league. I don't want to quit playing and I'd rather stay in the League of Ireland instead of moving north, but I'll have to look at all options."

Midfielder Gary Dempsey put in a good shift with Bray Wanderers last season but the Seasiders are another club where last season's squad are free agents (Chris Shiels, Gary Shaw and Conor Murphy had trials in England last week).

"I'm up for grabs like so many other players, but I want to carry on," says Dempsey.

The former Everton and Aberdeen man is already preparing for a career after his playing days are over, as the Wexford-born player has set up a soccer academy (matchfitsoccer.ie) to try and give an outlet to players in areas like Wexford and Wicklow.