Part-time football may be the way forward to avoid further clubs going the way of Cork City

The Irish economy is struggling to climb out of the worst recession to hit the country in over 20 years and professional football is one of the many areas badly hit.

While Giovanni Trapattoni’s international side, which is comprised of players from English clubs, continues to grind out good results, the domestic game struggles to compete with the rival attractions of Rugby Union, Gaelic football and hurling.

At the end of last season over 90 per cent of the players in the League of Ireland were out of contract. Some had difficulty finding new clubs and many had to take a cut in wages. The situation was so bad this pre-season that the Professional Footballers Association (PFAI) organised training sessions for unemployed players so they could keep in shape. The PFAI also organised friendlies to help them find new clubs.

The FAI, who took over the running of the league from the League of Ireland Management Committee a few years back, is trying to keep the show on the road by implementing strict licencing rules which mean all clubs now have to submit a budget for the season ahead to the Association.

PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness admits that licencing is the way forward, explaining: “Licencing is the key to getting things right in the League of Ireland, but the calendar is out of sync. The FAI set dates for budget submissions, but there are no sanctions for clubs that fail to comply. Three weeks before the start of the season nobody knew for certain what teams will be in the premier division this season.”

Last season Cork City had a few scares, but survived and even qualified for the Europa League. However, the club’s failure to settle a tax bill with the Revenue Commissioners saw them wound up in the high court in February. Having survived previous winding-up orders, the Association had been very patient – some clubs would say too patient – in holding out to see if Cork could solve their financial problems, even including them in this season’s Premier Division fixture list until their ultimate demise.

After examining the various budget proposals the FAI issued 14 premier division licences and seven first division licences for the 2010 season, with Derry City – who were found to be operating dual contracts with their players last season and were expelled from the Premier Division – in the latter category.

A switch to a full-time, professional set-up a few years back brought a few false dawns, with clubs such as Shelbourne, Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic notching up a few good results in Europe. Those good European runs could also be attributed to a switch to summer football.

However, sooner or later, players, clubs and the FAI must realise that they will have to revert to part-time football once again. Reverting to Sunday afternoon kick-offs as in the 1960s and 1970s is not yet an option, but at this stage anything may be worth a try.

“I think we are already nearly back to part-time football,” says McGuinness. “In recent months we have seen some of our players emigrate to Australia and others join clubs in the lower divisions in England to stay in football. This season only two clubs, Bohemians and Sporting Fingal will have a full-time set up over 52 weeks of the year. Players may train full-time, but there are no jobs in Ireland right now, so they will have to make do with part-time wages. However, I think our good results in Europe will continue because the clubs who have qualified for Europe are well organised.”

Former St. Patrick’s Athletic CEO Richard Sadlier summed up the situation at most clubs when he said: “Convincing players to take voluntary pay cuts in the long-term interest of a club they know they will leave in a year or two is a big ask.”