Money talks but bitterness remains
A bitter end to a European adventure that descended from a fairytale into a nightmare -- a dispute over bonus payments which threatened to bring St Patrick's Athletic to its knees. Make no mistake about it. This could have been the end.
In a way, it was fitting that last night's game should take place in Tallaght, and not the club's home in Inchicore, for the events of a dramatic week seem so far removed from the values which define the Saints' identity.
The irony is that the method by which this group of players reached the third round of the Europa League was in keeping with the Saints way. Stern tests in Iceland and Kazakhstan were overcome by spirit, by dogged determination and perseverance through adversity; many of the reasons that a club who play out of a ground located behind a row of houses on a nondescript street have survived for so long in the top tier of Irish football and competed with distinction at home and abroad.
And then this. A row over bonus and appearance money which led to a situation where -- on the morning of a European game -- the players released a statement saying they would not be turning up for the second leg of their meeting with Karpaty Lviv.
On a national and international scale, it would have been a major story, fuelling the familiar embarrassing perception of the League of Ireland -- just a week after a select group of performers from around the country were effectively treated as second-class citizens by their own association in the lead-up to the Dublin Super Cup.
On a local scale, the heartbeat of a community was in danger of disappearing. A boycott would have cost the Saints €335,000 and the support of owner Garrett Kelleher, who has bankrolled the club since 2007. The love of the supporters in the club's Patron Scheme instigated a resolution in the dispute between the Saints hierarchy and players, but the cost of cleaning up the mess from strike action is not something they could have managed.
Yet there are several layers to this. There were boos directed at players from the Saints hardcore last night and a banner with the words, 'For the love, not the money' was revealed. The frustrations were entirely understandable -- but not unanimous. Other sections of the crowd applauded the men in red and white.
After all, this crop of Saints players aren't bleeding the club dry -- an accusation which could have been levelled at some players who earned excessive amounts for doing very little in a period of crazy spending in the aftermath of Kelleher's arrival. Pete Mahon and John Gill have assembled a competitive squad on an €8,000 a week budget. A couple of years back, the combined wage for two Saints players was close to that figure.
Now, the top earner at Richmond Park is on a gross payment of €500 a week, and some are lining out for less than €150 a week.
Last Friday, former Saints winger Sean O'Connor agreed to re-sign for nothing. Seven members of the first team squad balance their football commitments around their day jobs.
Their argument is that their exploits in Europe have brought almost €400,000 into the coffers, as the Saints weren't budgeting for Europe at the beginning of the year; the capitulation of Sporting Fingal opened the door. €270,000 of that figure is from UEFA prizemoney, and the rest in gates and additional sponsorship.
While there is acceptance that the logistics of travel -- €50,000 to Iceland and Ukraine and over €75,000 to Kazakhstan -- has cost the club up to half of the figure, the players want a cut of the balance. In tandem with the PFAI, they formed the opinion that the Saints had profited to the tune of €200,000 from their achievements on the field in Europe; they initially sought a bonus of €7,500 for getting past Icelandic opposition, €20,000 for making it past Kazakhstan outfit Shakhter Karagandy, and another €20,000 for appearing against Karpaty Lviv.
The Saints baulked at any mention of appearance money, and were offering a total of €17,500 in bonuses, plus €7,000 to reimburse the seven players with jobs for time taken off.
At that point, the squad were seeking €37,500 in bonus and appearance money. The gap was substantial. The FAI were informed of the situation and got involved after the players and PFAI released the statement which confirmed their intent to skip the game.
"This is the first time I've been with a group of players who were prepared to take such a severe action," said PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness.
"If I was on the outside looking in, I'd be angry towards the players like some supporters are. But I've been on the inside and, in our view, the club have not bothered to address the issues which players had. This has been building up for some time. I don't think they thought the players would follow through."
When it became apparent that a no-show could spell the end for the club, discussions accelerated. The collapse of the club would have left the players with nothing at all. Saints figures stress that any profit from European exploits is required to keep the show on the road as it is. Supporters, who have been raising money through a Patron Scheme, approached the club with an offer of help from their cash reserve, League of Ireland Director Fran Gavin was also involved.
Compromise was reached within an hour. The appearance money was off the agenda. Instead, it was €10,000 for beating the Icelandics, €17,500 for the Kazakh toppling, and the €7,000 expenses for the double jobbers. In other words, the bonus demands dropped by €10,000 and the problem was solved. Small money, in the greater scheme of things, but in these difficult times every penny counts.
The remarkable aspect of the affair is that the squad won't actually receive the bonus money until the end of this year when UEFA stump up the cash. Saints fans are unhappy at what they consider to be unnecessary short-term urgency.
From now, the road is unclear. Bridges will have to rebuilt. The players retained the support of Mahon throughout. But they retain concerns about the threadbare operation running the club.
"They're all good lads," said Mahon last night. "I'm happy with them. I like them, as footballers and human beings. I had no doubt it would go ahead." A contrasting sentiment from a day when, suddenly, nothing seemed certain.