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'The highs are so short-lived and the lows last so much longer' - New film reveals the tough reality of a LOI footballer

Out of Their League screens on eir Sport tomorrow night.

FILMMAKER CRAIG SPEER has a talent for telling stories from sport’s margins. His 2018 documentary Beyond the Baseline followed tennis player Sam Barry, who travelled from one obscure tennis tournament to another in the hope of clambering the rankings.

(At one point Barry wins a tournament in Israel, but the prize money doesn’t cover his costs and he considers leaving his trophy behind him, given it’s so flimsy it might break in his bag.) 

Speer’s latest film, Out of Their League, points the camera closer to home, charting a six-week training camp for unattached footballers arranged by the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland.

The camp climaxes in a couple of friendly games in the hope the players will be picked up before the next season starts. 

Up to 85% of players in the League of Ireland are left out of contract at the end of each season, and although many are picked up again, some slip through the cracks. This training camp is one of their few safety nets. 

Derek Pender, who had retired from Bohemians weeks earlier, is this year’s coach. The camp has proved a useful shop window for coaches too: Neale Fenn, Trevor Croly, and Stephen Bradley have taken sides in the past. 

As for the players, Conan Byrne, who had just won the first division with Shelbourne, is involved here, he tells us he still hasn’t bought his own home despite being a qualified teacher.

Byrne has at least got himself a good qualification.  In 2018, 30% of League of Ireland players had a Junior Cert as their highest qualification. 75% had nothing more than a Leaving Cert.

Perhaps the most compelling player involved is the affable, 21-year-old Sean Boyd, recently released by Shamrock Rovers.

There’s a fabulous scene in which he and his father trade stories over a career that should still be in its early stages, with his father rooting out a couple of framed jerseys – one from an underage Irish international in Sweden, another from a Europa League qualifier with Rovers – along with a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings of his son’s exploits. 

In the middle of all this, Boyd tells his father he’d just got a shift working at an An Post depot from 10pm to six in the morning. 

“When I first got into the Rovers team, I thought I’d be there forever…but then you realise football’s not like that”, says Boyd. 

“The highs are so short-lived and the lows are so much longer”, he says later, plainly calling it “the nature of the game.” 

Boyd gets picked to go to a similar training camp in Finland under an exchange programme with the PFAI, and plays in the first of the arranged friendlies, away to Rochdale. 

It’s during this game that things take a horrifying turn, as Boyd lands twists his knee in the uneven turf, and is stretchered off roaring in pain. A later, lonely scene sees him being loaded into the back of an ambulance. 

Capture Sean Boyd is stretchered off.

We later learn that Boyd has suffered a complete rupture of his ACL and torn his meniscus, and is facing a long, long road back to the road back. 

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“It’s hugely disappointing considering the amount of work he’s put in”, says McGuinness. “But that’s football.” 

You realise football’s not like that.

The nature of the game. 

That’s football. 

These are the recurring lines of this film, with footballers even in their early twenties already too aware of the game’s fundamental ignorance toward them. 

Boyd undergoes surgery and is filmed battling his way back, and marked his birthday last week by tweeting a video of himself in the gym. “22 years old today and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be, getting closer to being back out on the pitch”

This documentary can be read as a testament to the bravery and persistence of the players and the decency of the players’ union in the face of a sport that has long since made it clear that it doesn’t really care about them.  

But that’s been an angle of sport that’s been told for as long as we’ve been printing the scores, though. For all the excellence we’ve praised, there have always been stories of heroic endeavour at the sport’s lonely margins. 

There’s something more to this film. 

As these players fight for the few chances left, they see the walls close in around them.

During this camp, Limerick FC go into liquidation, the FAI the release a set of adjusted and nuclear accounts in which their auditors refuse to say the Association remains a going concern, and the sports minister flippantly tells an Oireachtas Committee that it is “his guess” that the League of Ireland would cease to be if the Association did go bust. 

All of these debacles are referenced in the film. 

So while you can admire these flinty souls, ask yourself, why are these guys made work so hard for so little? 

If life at this end of football is just the pushing of a rock up a hill, then why is that hill so much steeper in Ireland? 

Out of Their League will be on eir sport 1 tomorrow, Monday 29 June at 8pm.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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