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'Players shouldn't accept it, fans shouldn't accept it, clubs shouldn't accept it'

Midfielder Eoin Wearen discusses Limerick’s recent financial problems and the players’ threat of strike action.

Limerick’s Danny Morrissey celebrates scoring a goal with Cian Coleman and Eoin Wearen.
Limerick’s Danny Morrissey celebrates scoring a goal with Cian Coleman and Eoin Wearen.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

IT STARTED A little over a month ago when Limerick’s players were told there was no money to pay them.

The footballers at the club had been let down and the anger was palpable.

Goalkeeper Brendan Clarke was among those to lament the precarious position himself and colleagues had been put in.

“Everyone’s now been landed in the bullshit, stereotypical, League of Ireland situation, which is embarrassing,” Clarke said at the time.

There were worrying signs as far back as last January, when chairman Pat O’Sullivan spoke of his desire to sell the club, explaining: “It is not possible for me to fund it in the long-term.”

With this air of uncertainty looming, the players have soldiered on. Since news of their financial problems became public, the Shannonsiders have won one and lost three out of four Premier Division matches. Consequently, they find themselves second from bottom and in danger of relegation, four points behind Bohemians, who are eighth.

In recent weeks, a number of senior players have left, including Clarke, Conor Clifford, Mark O’Sullivan, Henry Cameron and Daniel Kearns.

On Tuesday, it was hard to keep up with the various statements being put out. Both the club and the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland had their say. The latter accused the former of “inaccuracies”. Limerick, meanwhile, criticised the PFAI for arranging a meeting with the players to ballot them on strike action.

It is hard to separate fact and conjecture at times, with the two sides releasing contradictory claims. However, a couple of matters are certain. The Football Association of Ireland have confirmed Limerick’s punishment, which prevents them from competing in the IRN-BRU Scottish Challenge Cup as well as banning the club from making signings for the remainder of the season.

The players, meanwhile, have finally received the money owed to them. That outcome, however, has not prevented them from voting overwhelmingly in favour of strike action should further financial problems arise in future.

We knew before the meeting that payments would be made [Monday] or at the very latest [Tuesday]. But it was more a case of just protecting ourselves as players,” midfielder Eoin Wearen tells The42.

“All we’re trying to do is prevent this from happening again, month on month.”

For Limerick’s young players, it has been a harsh insight into the realities of being a struggling League of Ireland club.

“The majority of this squad haven’t been through anything like this before,” Wearen explains.

“We just needed to know where we stood, what our rights were and as players, what was the best option to take.

“One thing we want to emphasise is that no way at all is this a stance against the club. This isn’t a stance against Pat, nothing like that at all. As players, we’re still part of the club, we’re still fighting for the club, we’re still playing for the club, we’re playing for Pat, the manager, the fans. This is nothing [to change that] at all.

“The fans will see that. Anybody that’s seen us play in recent weeks knows that it hasn’t affected our performances. It’s just trying to prevent this kind of thing happening going forward, whether it’s our club or any other club.”

Pat O'Sullivan watches on Limerick FC Chairman Pat O'Sullivan. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Despite all these problems, Wearen insists the atmosphere in training has been positive.

“We’ve got great characters in the dressing room, so at no stage has there ever been a split or a divide — no bad eggs or anything like that creeping in. As far as we’re concerned, when we’re playing football, that’s when we’re happiest.

“The off-the-pitch stuff is the last thing we want to talk about. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks, it’s all we’ve been talking about and as players, it’s been all we’ve been thinking about.”

It has been quite a baptism of fire for Wearen, who only joined Limerick ahead of the 2018 season.

The St Kevin’s Boys youth product spent a couple of years coming up through the academy at West Ham. Following his release by the Hammers, he joined Bohs in 2014, and spent the next four years there save for a brief spell at Sligo in 2015. While still a young player, Wearen has spoken in the past about how serious injuries have dogged his career. Following these issues, a fresh start saw him join Limerick in January 2018 and the 25-year-old says there was “no indication” at the time of the problems that would lie ahead.

A few weeks prior to the last payment, there were a couple of little whispers around that maybe there might be a delay in things,” he recalls.

“But none of us thought it was going to happen as soon as it did, it was a shock to everybody really.”

As difficult as the situation is, one positive about having such a young squad is that a number of the players are not yet at the point in their lives where they have mortgages to pay and families to provide for, in contrast with similar situations in the past that impacted clubs with more seasoned performers.

“The way we see it as a group of players, the same way we play on the pitch, right to the very last one, we’re all in it together,” Wearen adds. “So if there are one or two lads that need the money more than others, we need to fight and be side by side with them and stand together. The minute players start to distance themselves and say ‘I’m worried about myself and I have my own problems,’ that will start to creep into the dressing room and show on the pitch as well.

“The group, in the whole process, we stuck together as players and that’s all you can ask for — that you can look at the player next to you and know that this is the kind of thing coming into the games that will bring us closer together and make us stronger as a team. I suppose that remains to be seen over the next couple of weeks, but hopefully that will be the case.”

Conor Clifford and Gavan Holohan Conor Clifford was among six senior players to recently leave the club. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The exodus of senior players means the squad is now more evenly divided into full-time, part-time and amateur players. Tommy Barrett, in his first job in the League of Ireland, has been placed in the difficult position of trying to ensure morale remains high. But Wearen says the 39-year-old, who was recently awarded his Uefa Pro Licence for coaching, has excelled under these pressurised circumstances.

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“He’s brilliant with the players — especially because we’ve got a young group — in terms of getting people onside. Going back to it over the last few weeks, I know this has been hanging over our heads and hanging over the head of Tommy. Tommy’s brought us together — he’s made sure everybody’s playing for him and for the club. And that’s been the case. It comes down to all the players having the utmost respect for him. He’s been brilliant in terms of understanding the players’ side of things while also understanding the club’s standpoint as well. It’s been tough and he’s kind of in the middle of it.

“This isn’t a players-against-club thing, it’s far from it. As a club, the people in it are very close. We’re hoping that it is going to bring a resolution, where this is the end of it.

Unfortunately, players have to take a stance. Obviously, people are well informed now about a statement that’s gone out. But as players, we’d be 100%, we don’t want a strike and we’re hoping it never comes to that.”

With well over a month having now passed since the seriousness of the situation became apparent, the lack of progress in recent weeks has been a source of frustration around the club.

The PFAI say that arranging meetings with the FAI has not been easy, and seemingly as a result, the saga has dragged on indefinitely. Eventually though, the two organisations got together and there is hope now that the matter is close to being rectified.

“As soon as the PFAI met the FAI and the FAI met the club, things seemed to be resolved,” Wearen says. “So from a players’ point of view, whether it could have been fixed sooner — that’s our only question. Could it have taken place two or three weeks ago if there were better communication channels?”

Tommy Barrett Boss Tommy Barrett has been charged with the difficult task of keeping morale at the club high. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

On the back of the various issues surrounding Limerick as well as Bray in recent weeks, the pessimistic view has been put out there that such debacles are unavoidable, given the lack of support that often hampers struggling League of Ireland clubs. Wearen, however, does not agree with this perception.

“I think there has to come a point where we need to draw a line and say ‘it doesn’t happen’. It shouldn’t happen, at all costs, we [need to] make sure as a league, whether that’s down to the clubs, the FAI or players, that we make a stand on things.

“Most top tiers across Europe and world football would like to think this stuff isn’t a common occurrence. Unfortunately, in our league, the few years I’ve been back, it’s happened on a couple of occasions.

“With Limerick, it’s a little bit different, because as Pat said to us and all the senior players who have been at the club for a number of years, the likes of Shane Duggan, Shane Tracy, Shaun Kelly, they’ve never been wanting for wages before with this club. Any promises Pat’s made, he’s delivered.

“This is new to this particular club as far as I’m concerned. There are obviously issues with other clubs where it’s happened more than once. But as I said as well, even if it happens once, that still shouldn’t be the case.

With the amount of young players we have in our squad in particular, you’d like to think they have another 15 years playing in this league. We want to make it the best league possible for them to play in. So we’re trying to do it on behalf of them and they need to trust us, the senior players.

“The message we’re trying to get out is ‘we can’t allow this thing to become the norm’. At some stage, there’s got to be a stop to it. No players should be going into a season, in January or February, wondering when things are going to dry up or when the problems are going to start occurring, whether it’s going to be May, July or August. It shouldn’t happen at any stage. So I think players shouldn’t accept it, fans shouldn’t accept it, clubs shouldn’t accept it.

“From my point of view, it shouldn’t happen in professional sport. But there’s a lack of investment. What we need at our club — if there are problems or issues with money, we need the city and the supporters to really get behind us.”

A general view of Market's Field after the game A general view of Market's Field. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

That last point is key. One of the most disappointing aspects of Limerick’s 2018 season has been the attendances at Markets Field. The club acknowledged this issue earlier in the week, explaining via a statement that “our gate receipts and match-night income has been well below the levels achieved over the last number of years”.

Wearen adds: “There are a number of things that can be improved on. Yes, the support can be better. Again, I’m not just talking about one club. For the majority of the league, bar two or three sides, the rest of the league needs supporters to come out and support the team. In terms of investors, sponsorship, we need to try to dive into that a little bit more. I think the marketing in the league can improve as well in terms of the product we’re selling.

As far as I’m concerned, since I’ve been back in the league, the standard’s been high year on year. There are plenty of good footballers in this league, whether it’s homegrown players or players who have come back from England. For those that haven’t seen games and witnessed it live, I think they’d get a surprise if they came and watched.

“But for those supporters that are loyal and have been there week on week, all we can do as players is thank them and just hope eventually there are more of them. They’re the ones, at the end of the day, that keep the clubs going.”

And regardless of all the obstacles that have been put in front of Limerick lately, Wearen remains optimistic that recent experiences, rather than weakening the team, can have a galvanising effect.

“As long as we’re part of this club, and I know I can speak for every player when I say it, playing for this club, we’ll give nothing less than 100% on the pitch and hopefully come the end of the season, that’ll be enough to keep us in the league.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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