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23 is the magic number when it comes to the tricky world of transfers

John O’Sullivan looks at how the presence of mandatory compensation payments often influence when LOI players move on.

Pat Hoban, now 24, left Dundalk for Oxford United at the end of last season.
Pat Hoban, now 24, left Dundalk for Oxford United at the end of last season.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

23 IS THE magic number and it’s got nothing to do with the shirt numbers of David Beckham, Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

23 is the age at which a professional League of Ireland footballer’s future is finally, and entirely, in his own hands.

Only then are the stumbling blocks of transfer compensation, player retention and club ownership removed. Dundalk may not keep Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan at the end of this season. They couldn’t hold Pat Hoban last season.

They’re not alone in this. Cork City couldn’t keep Gearoid Morrissey last season and Limerick lost Rory Gaffney, all important players in their respective clubs’ campaigns.

Players that once they reached 23, knew they finally could negotiate freely.

It’s a tricky subject and like UEFA coefficients, it tends to be the preserve of the football geek, but bear with me. The impact of being an U23 player is most easily broken down in terms of domestic and international transfers.

When you sign your first professional contract with a League of Ireland club, your schoolboy clubs are compensated for the training that has brought you to that point.

However, you can never truly call yourself a ‘free agent’ until the end of the season following your 23rd birthday.

Even if you are out of contract with a League of Ireland club, they have the right to “retain” you, to count you as their player. All they have to do is offer you a new contract before a specified date, equivalent or greater than your current one, even by €1 per annum.

If they do this, you’re retained. It doesn’t matter whether you accept the contract or not, you’re retained. The PFAI cannot help you, they cannot influence it, and you cannot leave a club without their agreement.

If you want to move a fee must be paid, or an agreement to waive it reached, a reduced fee and/or player exchange, maybe a loan player coming in the opposite direction for example. To force the transfer, the buying club must offer compensation equivalent to one year of your salary at your previous club.

A 20-year-old moving from one club to another, earning €400 per week, would require a fee of €16,000 to be paid unless the clubs can come to an alternative arrangement. Even for an 18-year-old paid the league minimum €75 per week, over a 40-week contract a fee of €3,000 would be required.

Once you’re 24 however, the 40-week contract becomes an advantage for some players as it opens up new avenues, opportunities and ability to renegotiate a contract each year.

That domestic deals are commonplace within the league is understandable, we all know that transfer fees are beyond clubs. It’s best to try and do a deal as you may need a future favour or deal.

Deals also take place on international transfers, with UK clubs who can well afford to pay training compensation. That is more disappointing.

International transfers are slightly different if you are a professional player. Until the end of the season during which you turn 23, every club you’ve played for from the age of 12 can demand a fee for you in training compensation.

The clubs through which you’ve played schoolboy football will be listed on your player passport, held by the FAI. The fee that each club can claim varies based on their own FIFA designated category and the category of the buying club. It is a mandatory payment and it can vary from €10,000 per year at the club to €60,000 per year at the club.

Of course it is not treated as a mandatory payment by UK clubs at all who will pressurise the player, parent and Irish club to save money they can well afford and it’s often the Irish clubs who are portrayed of ‘standing in the player’s way’. The FAI have been taking steps to ensure that these mandatory payments are made, but it’s not something they can truly influence.

It is now increasingly common to see 22-year-old players go on off-season trials to build interest ahead of what they expect will be their final year in the League of Ireland. They look cross channel at the extra income they can earn, even if on paper, they’re playing at a low UK standard.

As the age profile across our league continues to drop we will notice that 23 is the age when we will typically lose our best professional players to the UK, and for free.

If you want to read FIFA’s Regulations on the status and transfer of players, click here

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