'I hope to God that Bohs can sustain what they're doing'
St Pat's captain Damian Lynch talks to Vincent Hogan about a league that lived way above its means
It is a league with the feel of a repossessed house now. Just about all that that was grandiose and delusional has been taken. The vain are reinvented as practical people, the supercilious as humble. Is the madness over? Who can tell?
Damian Lynch wonders if, maybe, there's still one final layer of conceit to be pared away. Ever since Shelbourne's bubble burst in 2006, there's been the sense of a league living hopelessly beyond its means, of too many championship victories impregnated with the stain of financial recklessness.
It is almost a decade since he came home from England to play in his home city. Lynch has since won titles with Bohemians and Drogheda United and, always, had the benefit of a full-time salary from football. No longer. Captain of St Patrick's Athletic, he is now a part-time footballer. His day job is in PR.
And hindsight frames the folly of the past in stark clarity. For years, the league was running a fantasy, all but existing on monopoly money. Salary scales seemed to move in inverse proportion to revenue. "It was like the elephant in the room that nobody was speaking about," concedes Lynch.
"It just didn't add up. There was a real Celtic Tiger feel to it all. But the wages were getting too high. As a player, you kind of knew it. I think some of the salaries mentioned are a little exaggerated, but there's no question they had become ridiculous. I don't know how anyone thought it was sustainable."
Funny, his career began at a club whose story would become the great parable of financial misadventure. His first year at Leeds United coincided with Peter Ridsdale's arrival as chairman. He spent five years at Elland Road, existing on the fringes of first-team business run by Howard Wilkinson, George Graham and, finally, David O'Leary.
In '97, Leeds won the FA Youth Cup with Lynch partnering Jonathan Woodgate in the centre of defence and Paul Robinson in goal, Alan Maybury at right-back, Harry Kewell at left-back and Stephen McPhail in central midfield. It looked a team sprinkled with gold dust, but injury would hijack Lynch's development.
He spent the next three years wrestling with a variety of injuries, all the time sensing his dreams slip away like sand through fingers.
For two years, Kewell was his room-mate. They became good friends but, over time, their careers scissored in different directions. "There were four of us living in digs," recalls Lynch. "Myself, Harry, Alan Maybury and Stephen McPhail. I would have been on good money for a 17 or 18-year-old, picking up probably £1,500 a week.
"But then again my room-mate, Harry, was probably earning £15,000 a week by then. There was that big divide there. It always struck me that I might go to HMV and a buy one cd, Harry could go and buy 20 and it wouldn't put the slightest dent on his finances. You just had to be careful that you didn't get sucked into that kind of mindset."
It helped that their manager was Paul Hart, a noted disciplinarian who insisted on his young players following a strict code of behaviour. "It was a little like being in the army," Lynch recalls with palpable fondness now.
"If you had a meeting, it was expected that you'd be there 15 minutes before it started. You had to have your bed made, your mirror washed down, your shower cleaned out, your room tidy. Everything was checked every morning.
"It was actually great for us. It taught us respect. I mean, I look at so much of what's happening with players in England now -- particularly the publicity of the last few months -- and that kind of guidance just doesn't seem to be there anymore. You look at the John Terry situation and you just think these people are living in cloud cuckoo land."
Just as Leeds were heading into a Champions League adventure that sucked Ridsdale into the adoption of calamitous business plans -- built on the assumption that their European status had a permanency -- Lynch was leaving to join Hart at Nottingham Forest. His year at the City Ground would be, arguably, his least enjoyable in the game and he was only too happy to take up Stephen Kenny's offer of a contract with Bohemians in 2002. Damian's older brother, Aidan, was playing with UCD at the time. The league seemed to be in a good place. Coming home was easy.
They won the title in his first season and he stayed with Bohs until Drogheda came calling with a lucrative three-year contract in '05. "I was getting married and thinking, 'There's a bit of stability here'," he recalls. "Looking back, was there stability? No. Was there stability anywhere?
"Players always thought it would just go on. It was maybe a bit like the banks. Drogheda's average home gate was maybe 3,000. It didn't add up. But, when you're being offered good money, you're not going to turn it down."
Another league title came his way but, gradually, the sense of collective denial began to sweep across the domestic game like a bracing wind. Drogheda almost went to the wall and, more recently, Cork and Derry plunged into fiscal darkness too. The image of a league hopelessly blind in a world of light has led to vicious lampooning.
At St Pat's, financial reality hit home in mid-season last year. Team captain Jamie Harris and Lynch as vice-captain were asked to broach the subject of pay-cuts with their team-mates. The response was educational. Some players blazed with indignation.
"They just said, 'no way!'" he remembers. "This is in the middle of the financial storm. You're saying to them: 'Lads, there are banks failing here, businesses going to the wall...' But the response of some lads was, 'No, that's paying my mortgage!'
"I suppose there were people in every profession who just didn't get it."
The season became one of grim survival for Pat's after which they removed just about all of the big earners from their books. Lynch reckons that the club's wage bill for this campaign will run to less than a third of last season's.
He, himself, has taken the hit philosophically. Since coming home to Ireland, he has concentrated on preparing for life after football. He took a computer course during his first year with Bohs and followed it up by taking a Certificate in Estate Agency and Auctioneering. That course exposed him to 12 separate subjects, a broad spectrum that now stands him in good stead.
Pat's move to a part-time set-up confirmed for Lynch that it was "time to get into the real world".
Last November, he began working with O'Herlihy Communications and admits that the adjustment hasn't always been plain sailing. Five months ago, his wife, Janet, gave birth to Dylan and they are now living through the teething process.
Lynch admits: "I'm working long days now and it can be tiring, particularly with Dylan teething. But I have a mortgage, bills to pay. And O'Herlihy's have been brilliant. They accommodate me for training and matches. And I'm loving being busy. When I go training now, it's letting off steam more than anything else."
The age profile in the dressing-room gives him an antique feel now. Last week, they were getting their body-fat measured and the process required dates of birth. "Thirty-first of the seventh, '79" recited Lynch. The next player up was born in '91. He almost fell off his chair. Some of Lynch's team-mates were still in the pram when he was dreaming big dreams with Leeds.
Pat's won't win the league, he agrees, but he doesn't think it's too fanciful to cast an eye on a European position. Beyond that? No one is fortified by any certainty.
"I don't know if the league has hit rock bottom yet," Lynch admits candidly. "And I don't think it can really get better until it does. I mean you look at the Bohs situation and you wonder what's going to happen. Cork have hit rock bottom; Derry have hit rock bottom. Shamrock Rovers hit rock bottom ahead of everyone else. A lot of people forget that.
"I'm just hoping to God that Bohs can sustain what they're doing because, if they don't, that's going to be another disaster."
Full of hope and nostalgia as a new campaign dawns, the league needs few things more urgently than a season free of asterisks.