State of Play: Majority of young players deserve a better deal
English game’s wealth means there is plenty to play for but youngsters still getting a raw deal
I’m a bit of a bystander these days, but after three years working with the PFAI as part of the union’s attempt to provide an alternative to the mainstream agents for players, I still follow what goes on in the game here with interest. And although a fair bit has changed in a few short seasons, the stories doing the rounds just now have a very familiar ring to them.
One of the aims in my time would have been to help shape a gradual change in the nature of transfers of players from here to Britain. The idea, hardly a revolutionary one, was that by keeping young “prospects” here for an extra couple of years we could create something of a “win-win” situation for the various parties to a move.
Clubs here would get the benefit of their talent for a bit longer before selling them on at a profit. The players would have the opportunity to mature in football, educational and personality terms. And clubs there would have a more accurate sense of what they were getting with those lads that arrived at their training ground for the first time a little further down the line in terms of their development and better equipped in just about every way for the many challenges they would face.
The recent reports of young Barry Coffey signing for Celtic after interest was apparently expressed by a long list of big clubs - and now the news that Shamrock Rovers’ Trevor Clarke is being monitored by the likes of Southampton and Barnsley - is evidence that both routes are still being taken.
That advice is not always something a young player, or his parents, want to hear when there is money on the table
I know nothing about either move, really, or the people involved but wish Coffey the best and sincerely hope he is among the tiny percentage of players who go at that age and really make it. When I was with the PFAI you took every case on its merits, but outside of the exceptional talents we tended to advise against going so young. That advice is not always something a young player, or his parents, want to hear when there is money on the table.
Of course, if it is Manchester United offering really big money to someone with obvious potential then you look to do the best deal possible. But in majority of cases the evidence that teenagers should stay here until they were 18 or so and had finished school seemed fairly overwhelming.
Alarmingly, clubs actually seemed content on occasion to allow a player leave who they didn’t believe was good enough to really “make it”. The offer would be there and they would wish him well then hope for the best, that he might yet develop. A significant portion of our work, though, involved dealing with the young players who came back after their initial scholarship or contract had ended and the club no longer had any real interest in them.
There were a lot of people they might have blamed for their fate
It is a devastating time for the player. Many had grown used to being told they were destined for great things since they were 10 or 12 years old. Their education would suffer - persuading kids to just stick with school until they got their Leaving Cert was a recurring challenge for us - and many would have a big party to celebrate their move when it eventually happened. Two or three years later they might come home, under a cloud, sometimes suffering from depression and routinely having lost all interest in playing a game that potentially still had a lot to offer them.
It is a cutthroat business with clubs, agents and, all too often, even family members coming to regard kids as potential cash cows
There were a lot of people they might have blamed for their fate. Football is a great game that, at its best, generates an incredible sense of community. But it is a cutthroat business with clubs, agents and, all too often, even family members coming to regard kids as potential cash cows. Inevitably, some are better than others in each of those categories but the interests of players interests did often seem to get a little lost in the mix.
Parents clearly tend to want what’s best for their children, but they can get as carried away with it all as the young players they set out to protect. I remember advising fathers and mothers on what they should insist on during contract negotiations or asking afterwards what had been included. The response, in either instance, would often be a variation on the same thing: “but the lad just wants/wanted to sign”.
Many clubs here, and more particularly the coaches at them, do tremendous work in terms of player development but there is little getting away from the fact that it is big business for them all. Rovers have made no secret of their desire to rival, even eclipse, the likes of St Kevin’s or Joseph’s Boys , Cherry Orchard or Belvedere in terms of a production line of young talent that can be sold overseas. Those schoolboy clubs, despite the closer links that have generally come about with League of Ireland clubs as a result of the new national underage structures, are still keen to fight their corner.
Something like 93 per cent of those travelling to England or Scotland as youngsters fail to secure even a second contract
All profess to put the players’ interests first and for many that is, no doubt, the priority. But while you’ll meet people from clubs at every level who can tell you how many players they “got away” in each of whatever number of previous seasons, few ever seem to have accurate statistics for just how many come straight home again.
In reality, those numbers are huge with around 93 per cent of those travelling to England or Scotland as youngsters failing to secure even a second contract. And that’s not to say that the remaining seven per cent all make it; far from it. Although they have cleared the highest hurdle, many more fall away while others carve out careers that, while good, are not quite what they used to dream about.
There are, whether we like it or not, going to be casualties in all of this. Too many people have too much at stake and not everyone can make it. But the industry (or game, depending on how idealistic you are) is rife with conflicts of interest caused by coaches/clubs/agents/relatives straying from one role into another or encroaching on the space that should exist between them.
I know all about this from personal experience. One of the players I deal with opted, after I had actively supported his development in every way I could over a two year period without getting a penny in return, to change agents just before he was finally to sign a first professional contract. The club manager had told him who he needed to be represented by if he wanted the deal to go through.
There could be a great deal done to improve the situation but we shouldn’t hold our breath. The PFAI still give good advice but would it really be all that outrageous to suggest, though, that all sides agree something more needs to be put in place for those who don’t make it? They could, perhaps, commit to setting aside a percentage of all the fees involved for the welfare and education of the players who come back.
Sadly, it seems, most are too focused on the ones about to go to care.
Stephen Bent is a former Fifa registered agent who worked for three years with the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland.
State of Play will return later in the year. You can read a selection previous columns from a variety of figures involved in football below