Irish pre-season pay policies highlights massive divide
Christmas is over and, this week, the players who are fortunate enough to already be contracted to League of Ireland clubs for the 2016 season are on the verge of returning back to work.
The release of the Premier Division fixture list provided brief exposure during the point of the calendar where the domestic game hits peak obscurity. It's a long winter of inactivity for the senior game in this country, a dysfunctional period which sees leading players signing on the dole or taking casual jobs in order to pay the bills.
Pre-season may be a chore from a physical perspective but, at this stage, many players will say they are relieved it is coming around to restore some order to their lives.
The extent of the satisfaction depends on the terms and conditions of the deals they have signed.
When it comes to League of Ireland contracts these days, it appears that the devil is in the detail. Take, for example, the fact that the mid-season break in 2016 will be a week longer because of the Euros in France.
This is significant in a culture where clubs and players tend to do business by bartering on the weekly wage as opposed to a monthly or annual salary.
There's an appropriate short term-ism about the favoured terms of engagement and it has frequently come back to bite those footballers that sign on the dotted line without fully examining the small print.
Some clubs have a policy of not paying players during the summer hiatus and if that is applied to 2016 then the additional seven days of slumber will have a significant impact on the bottom-line value of contracts relative to those clubs who do pay through the break.
The consistency of a smaller regular wage could end up being worth more than the larger sum which has an asterisk applied.
Last year, it's understood that one Premier Division outfit went a step further by stipulating that if they were knocked out of the FAI Cup, they would not pay the players if they had a blank week when the next stage of the competition came around.
As it happened, the team managed to get through the early phases, which makes it read like a clever incentive when in reality it sets a dangerous precedent seeing as it's possible to land a nightmare draw at the first hurdle which might cost squad members two weeks' wages down the line.
It's extremely unsatisfactory for part-time players making a serious commitment and it would be a mistake to sign on those terms.
Pre-season has similar nuances, and this can extend to clubs with professional players too. The hard work begins in the first weeks of January but the starting point for a 40-week deal up to the conclusion of the season is the end of the month.
In theory, it means players going through their paces for free although the bigger operations spread out payments to cover this period.
Others aren't actually offering 40-week deals at all; there are cases where clubs work off a policy of paying out only from when the league season kicks off and the gate money comes in.
There are examples where the defined starting date was the first Friday of the campaign which meant that, technically, the preparations for that game were not included in the contract; this has led to rows at the end of a year where playing squads wrongly assumed they would be getting the week back.
It's a murky area which should be tidied up. But when it comes down to it, pragmatism kicks in. Footballers can spot an opportunity too - like the player this winter who sought a clause in his contract that guarantees him an additional year if his employers fails to honour their wage commitments at any point.
That's a distinctly League of Ireland take on the bonus system; strikers seeking deals that secure them a pay rise or an extra 12 months if they score an agreed number of goals are lacking creativity in comparison.
There was an interesting debate on Cork's Red FM over the festive season involving ex-City players Neal Horgan (right), Liam Kearney and their esteemed former colleague Kevin Doyle.
Horgan touched on how the Conroy Report into the Airtricity League failed to zone in on whether the future will be shaped by a full-time or part-time ethos.
The different standards that are applied across the various Premier Division clubs are a huge obstacle to a coherent path forward.
The FAI will say that debt levels across the league have decreased under their stewardship and that may be so, yet it's a hollow victory when clubs are cutting every corner possible in a manner which illustrates there will always be a ceiling to their ambition.
At the upper end of the table, managers have voiced their dissatisfaction at the ludicrous length of the winter shutdown given that a direct consequence is the fixture congestion caused by cramming a season into eight months.
This year, with the longer break, midweek rounds in April, May and August and inevitable postponements related to European games in July will prompt the usual frustrations; supporters will pick and choose games, rescheduled affairs will clash with TV attractions and the overall product suffers.
But, in this instance, the FAI are merely responding to what the majority of their members want.
The best solution from a football perspective would be a spaced-out schedule that allows breathing room for the protagonists, but it's a simple fact that a good number of chairmen and accountants feel they would be unable to afford the cost.
The stress of keeping a club in the league afloat makes it tough to condemn this line of thought, especially with the crazy spending of the mid 2000s fresh in the mind.
There's an obvious contradiction in chiding clubs for penny-pinching when they would be the subject of huge criticism if they lived beyond their means and reneged on payments. The reliance on gate revenue is a genuine reflection of their limited income streams. UEFA's decision to bump up the rewards for European qualification is giving the current leading lights a serious chance to extend their dominance over the pack.
This widening of the gap between top and bottom explains why some footballers are returning to work without pay, but it doesn't make it palatable.
It's an erratic situation which should fuel a broader debate about direction and the obstacles to collective development. For this problem, there is no easy New Year resolution.