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Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Donall Farmer/INPHO
# domestic matters
'Clubs aren't paying enough and it's a huge issue but we're trying to turn it into a positive'
Shaun Elebert of the PFAI speaks to The42 about a new jobs programme for footballers in Ireland.

DEPENDING ON WHO you ask, or indeed believe, the economy is tentatively edging its way towards something of a recovery.

After the country was forced to bear the brunt of a protracted period of austerity, the turn of the year engendered a genuine semblance of positivity.

The domestic football scene was a microcosm of the economy with frenzied spending by clubs epitomising the Celtic Tiger years. While those in power are unlikely to be seen or heard shouting from the roof tops, many industries are now emerging through the other side of the years of hardship.

For the League of Ireland, however, the struggles continue.

It wasn’t so long ago that SSE Airtricity League sides were dishing out excessive wages on a weekly basis as they prospered during the tail-end of the boom but the brief era of full-time professional football in Ireland is now a distant memory.

Many clubs are doing just enough to keep their head above water as players must contend with wages a fraction of what they were receiving a few years ago.

The average salary in the Premier Division is now just €16,000 for the season with the league’s highest earner on €40,000. It’s a far cry from the lucratively remunerated occupation it’s made out to be.

Last week, PFAI secretary Stephen McGuinness admitted “no player chooses to play professional football in Ireland as a way of becoming rich and famous.” It was a blunt, yet accurate, assessment of life on the domestic circuit.

But a new PFAI jobs programme intends to help its members supplement their income by finding new employment opportunities outside of the game. Launched at the FAI headquarters in Abbotstown during the week, the scheme is designed to get players back into education, help them upskill and secure a stable base for the future.

General view during the game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Many players are left in limbo when the season ends but the PFAI are determined to secure a stable future for its members Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“It is a short-term initiative but it’s to set the players up for the long-term,” Shaun Elebert, the PFAI’s Player Development Advisor, told The42. “We want to get the lads in jobs initially and then upskill to ensure they have something to go into when they retire or when the season ends.

“A lot of them ring Stephen [McGuinness] in the office when the season ends asking him about what they can do. They don’t want to sign-on for personal reasons. It’s horrible for your mental health and self confidence.

“You can be lifting the title one week and find yourself in the social welfare queue the next.”

Elebert, who played for Shamrock Rovers and Longford Town in the 90s, has been central to the establishment of the programme having made the transition into full-time education and then the work place following his retirement aged just 24.

“I saw an article in the paper about how the PFAI were finding it difficult to get the lads into education,” Elebert, who is now a secondary school teacher, explains. “I came on board to help because I’ve been through it. That was about two years ago.”

Bohemians warm up before the game Morgan Treacy / INPHO Clubs can only offer 40-week contracts, leaving players out of work for more than two months of the year Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

A key part of the initial plan revolved around an online course run by FIFPro, the World Players’ Union. The concept gives sportsmen and sportswomen the chance to receive a BA-degree in Sport Management next to their sporting career but combining football with studies hasn’t appealed to the majority in the league.

Just two players had signed up for the course in the last few years and both pulled out after a couple of months. Many believe it is just not for them.

“That was the first thing that needs to be addressed,” Elebert says. “The problem is that the lads come home from the UK and they’ve no Leaving Certificate or any degree.

“Half of the problem is that they don’t realise there are courses out there available to them but many are intimated about going back to education. I know I was because football is all you’ve known.”

“We had to look at it from a different angle. The players are all out of contract for 12 weeks of the year so if we could get them jobs for that period then maybe they might think of enrolling for the course or upskilling in order to enhance their job opportunities.”

A recruitment company have been brought in to engage with potential employers such as sports stores and mobile phone companies but Elebert stresses this is not a case of the players being handed token jobs.

Gary Rogers Donall Farmer / INPHO Dundalk's Gary Rogers is one of four players currently taking the FIFPro online course Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

The objective is to give participants a helping hand and to a provide a stepping stone into the workplace. The process involves building a CV, developing interview techniques and partaking in surveys which will help determine the industry the individual is best suited to.

“We’re still in the early stages but we’re hopeful whoever signs up will have a job in September. It’s all about setting the player up for his career after football and if that’s by getting a part-time job throughout the season or seasonal work then that’s our aim.

“It’s the same idea as the annual FIFPro tournament in January but this is something that isn’t being done anywhere else. We don’t want players to have to worry about Christmas or the instability of being unemployed for two months.

“The contract situation is undoubtedly a negative aspect to our league but we’re trying to turn it into something positive.”

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