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Cocaine, concussion and creating a new future top of upcoming PFA Ireland agenda

General secretary Stephen McGuinness admits the lack of knowledge and attitudes towards recreational drugs is a “serious concern” as the PFAI prepare to visit clubs next week.

PFA Ireland general secretary Stephen McGuinness.
PFA Ireland general secretary Stephen McGuinness.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE SHOW IS about to go on the road, and some of the headline acts will be cocaine, concussion and creating a new future for the League of Ireland.

With SSE Airtricity League clubs now back in pre-season training ahead of the 2020 campaign – most getting into the thick of things before Christmas dinner was even served – the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland will begin visiting their members throughout the country from early next week.

The discussions will be driven by the need to ensure that the League of Ireland is at the centre of future plans for football in this country. “That has to be the case from here on,” PFA Ireland general secretary Stephen McGuinness believes.

“The League of Ireland cannot be just pushed to the side and ignored anymore.”

But there are other matters of immediate importance that McGuinness feels must be addressed with his members. Chief among them is education regarding recreational drugs such as cocaine, something McGuinness admits is “a serious concern” with some still not understanding the punishment from authorities.

The PFAI chief also fears that the disparity in punishments “goes from one extreme to another” and needs to be properly addressed.

The World Anti Doping Agency (Wada) is the governing body when it comes to drugs in sport and there is currently a scenario whereby a footballer who tests positive for a recreational drug such as cocaine while out of competition won’t be charged or receive a ban.

Meanwhile, the same player could, in theory, be handed a ban of anything from 12 months to four years if he fails a test during the season.

McGuinness has called on more rigorous, structured testing measures to be put in place by the FAI and Sport Ireland, revealing how he was informed by one Premier Division club that not a single one of their players was tested at all – in or out of competition – last year.

“More needs to be done, absolutely. The system at the moment is not good enough. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other in terms of the punishments too. You don’t want a situation where a player could view it as a risk worth taking with something like cocaine during the off season. That is a worry, to be honest. 

jack-byrne Jack Byrne: Shamrock Rovers midfielder spoke passionately about the LOI when he met Shane Ross last week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“And on the other side of that, what we have to make the players aware of is what the punishments are. I honestly don’t know if every player in every dressing room knows that there is a potential ban of up to four years if they take cocaine or another type of recreational drug during the season.

“It’s not a performance enhancing drug but the punishments can still be severe and we will have to get that message across again, the clubs need to inform them too.

“What you will also find in a lot of situations where it is recreational use, it’s not a case of trying to cheat or get an advantage, there could be other underlying issues at play that are the cause and it’s important to understand that.

“We want players to know there is always help available if they are struggling and in need.”

It is not the only concern of McGuinness and his colleagues at the PFAI. Along with former Shelbourne and Bohemians winger Ollie Cahill, the Dubliner will put in the miles over the coming weeks in the build up to the start of the season next month.

McGuinness is adamant that players cannot take any chances when it comes to dealing with concussions, and will be emphasing the FAI’s own guidelines on the matter which state that ‘any player with a concussion or a suspected concussion should be removed from the field of play immediately’.

“The bravado of old needs to stop, there is no place for it,” McGuinness added. “My message to the players will be to come off the pitch straight away, my message to the club will be to get them off the pitch if there is any chance it’s concussion.

They don’t have to try and be brave and stay out there. Please, please, please come off,” the former St Patrick’s Athletic defender pleaded.

“I know players don’t want to be seen to come off and show that vulnerability but it’s a point that we’ll be making to the clubs and their medical people too. In fairness, they have been very understanding of that.”

Last year, players throughout Ireland were shown a video presented by former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech to discuss some of the facts around concussion and head injuries.

Cech suffered a fractured skull in a collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt back in 2006 and McGuinness will be keen to use that tape as a reminder of some of the misconceptions around concussion.

“It doesn’t always have to be a whack to the head or the face, there can be times when a blow to the body might result in a whip of the neck and that could also lead to a concussion.

“We all need to be more aware, the players especially as it is their welfare at stake. That needs to be a priority with this.”

It was only last week that the PFAI and some of its members met with Minister for Sport Shane Ross and spoke with junior minister Brendan Griffin via a video link. 

Shamrock Rovers midfielder Jack Byrne, who was capped by the Republic of Ireland last year after joining the Hoops following several years in Britain, made sure to stress the importance of the League of Ireland as more than just a developmental tool.

That is a theme McGuinness will continue as he prepares for his club visits next week. “Absolutely. Of course it is a league where young players can learn their trade but there is more to it than that. We need to help the league get even stronger and get away from the old school thinking of the past.”      

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