What a summer! I’ve experienced every emotion from the ecstasy of getting married to the harsh reality of uprooting and starting married life unemployed and in the footballing ‘ratrace’ of finding a new club. It’s certainly not the way I would have planned it but that feeling of elation on saturday, that feeling of being part of a team, giving everything for the cause and picking up three points has made my summer of upheaval seemingly all worthwhile, and now I just want it to continue.
If you told me upon my release from Leyton Orient that I’d have to wait until the end of the summer transfer window to sort out my footballing future then I’d probably have replied “no chance” (even though part of me always considers the worst case scenario). In defence of this mindset, I felt I had just played a significant part (38 Appearances) in what was a successful season, helping Leyton Orient finish 7th in League 1 and missing out on a Wembley appearance by the cruelest of margins in the JPT. In my armoury I have over 200 appearances in League 1 over the past 5 seasons. Factor into this that I’ve won promotion from League 2 and have a major Irish domestic trophy behind me and perhaps you can understand the confidence in my belief that I’d be a decent acquisition for many a club. However, for large parts of the close season, and up to the start of september, it’s been nothing short of a stressful grind.
I departed for honeymoon in June, already in talks with one club, which in all intents and purposes was pretty much a done deal, but if football has taught me anything it’s that until the ink is dry on the contract, nothing is a done deal. They say a day in football is a long time so two weeks might as well be an eternity. I returned from honeymoon after two weeks and the whole picture changed. I found myself dropped like a hot snot by my agent of four years because he left for pastures new as a football league chief executive (cheers for that) and despite the manager of the said club still insisting on “wanting me on board” upon my return, he went and signed someone else in my position the very next day and to top it off, he didn’t even have the common courtesy to call and explain the situation. So, in a nutshell, I found myself clubless and agentless which in the football close season is not a great combo. Unlike other jobs, obtaining a footballing contract isn’t done by simply sending off a CV to prospective employers. The truth is, it’s almost all done through agents who are responsible for touting around the availability of their clients to football managers, and the harsh reality, whether you like them or loathe them, is that a player’s club-move can be largely dependant on an agents relationship with any given manager or club. From this, you can see for yourself that having a well connected agent is a vital ally for a player in order to unearth all potential suitors and therefore obtain the best deal. On the contrary, you can also see how not having one can be a worrying scenario for a player.
As the days ticked into July and then August, the reality of the situation facing me became a daunting one. Being at home, training alone and waiting for the phone to ring is a very lonely and demoralising existence. You dwell on your decisions to turn down offers from lower division sides with the confidence and hope of securing a deal to play at the highest possible level, and you constantly wonder whether you have you made the right choice. As the days tick by, you find yourself wrestling with your mind and your decision to hold out and keep the faith in your belief that the right offer will present itself. It’s a relentless mental torture. You listen to your mates in football talk about starting back for their pre-season and their ensuing season’s at their own clubs with all the usual training ground banter and it really hits you hard. You find yourself limiting contact with those mates as their banter and joviality and questions of concern only add to your anxiety and desperation to find a club which in turn leads to a reclusive way of thinking and an almost self imposed isolation. You click on Sky Sports News almost routinely to check if clubs are signing players and if they’re not, then it fills you with a strange but reassuring hope that the market is slow, however, when you do see the signings being made then your chest can tighten with anxiety as you ponder your next career move. As the days of solitary training progress, your mind becomes overrun with thoughts pondering the eternal question “what shall I do without football?”. I found the stress of the situation well managed by training hard which I found was the only time I was free from thought and where I could sweat my troubles away. I followed a strict training programme to keep myself sane, for want of a better word, and ready for action when the call came if at all. However, the problem with this is you can only train for so long, it’s the time when your alone in situ with your thoughts which are the hardest and weekends particularly, usually on Saturdays at 3pm.
With the new financial restrictions in place resulting in slashed budgets and squad sizes, out of contract players must now compete not only with other unattached players but also the reserve and youth of elite Premier League clubs being offered to lower league clubs whose wages are paid in full by their parent club. From the recipient clubs point of view this arrangement is fantastic with little or no repercussions. They acquire a player, although usually untested in competitive football, for free with no adverse effect on their budget. However, the implications of this on out of contract players like myself is frightening as how are we now supposed to compete with this offer of free labour and still earn a living in an already over competitive market? Unquestionably, it is an unerring situation to find yourself in but just goes to reinforce the present austerity of the footballing industry and the difficulties faced, as well as the sacrifices that must be made, by players all across the country to maintain and sustain a career. The advantageous days of the Bosman ruling are long gone and with the current economic climate, it would appear that football clubs now hold most of the key negotiating trump cards.
With the amount of players now out of work, clubs can be as as ruthless and stingey as they feel fit to a point. If a club wants you on trial first and you fancy signing there, then you better believe it’s a trial your gonna have to do regardless of reputation and experience. In this scenario, which I have unfortunately experienced, a player runs the risk of simply being used by a potential employer as ‘just another training/game body’ so opportunity selection would appear to be a key determinant in either gaining a contract or being mugged off. Unfortunately for out of contract pros in this desperate climate, this is a common tactic used by clubs, and a player looking to acquire a contract is faced with this double edged sword scenario and can only truly realise the outcome by seeing out the trial period or twigging early on in the trial that he’s being used and is wasting his time. All this uncertainty, of course, could be avoided with an honest and sincere conversation between player and manager but unfortunately honesty and sincerity are hard traits to come by in an industry where it’s all too easy to ‘use and abuse’. With this in mind, I’d like to reserve special mention for Greg Abbott’s refreshing honesty in getting me up to Carlisle. No bullshit, no fake promises and no hidden agendas. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to work with him longer as he appears to be one of the good guys in what, at times, can be a cynical industry.
For those fans who still believe that a career in football is an easy existence, they firstly need to realise that there’s more to becoming, and being a footballer than ninety minutes on a saturday. In fact, in an industry where honesty and sincerity are in short supply, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the ninety minutes on a saturday which is the easy part, but also the part that makes putting up with all the shit within football completely worthwhile.To have and sustain a career in football is, without doubt a privilege but, in the lower leagues especially, it’s anything but easy!!