The first in a fascinating three-part series focusing on Irish football players leaving their homeland to pursue a professional football career.
Who wouldn’t want to become a professional football player? The designer cars, houses, watches and clothes; the glamorous holidays in paradise; thousands of fans singing your name on a weekly basis; being the envy of many men and women; and being publicly adored for doing what you love. Within the higher levels of the men’s professional ranks – it would seem – these people are living out their dream whilst earning in a week what many working class households would be lucky to earn in a year, maybe even two years. The perceived lifestyle of these privileged individuals has some understandable pull factors, which is why many young men will go to extreme lengths in pursuing this career.
When coming from a country that doesn’t offer professional football, however, chasing the dream may become somewhat complicated. In this three-part series for SportExamined.com, I aim to shed some light on the truths, challenges and pitfalls of Irish-born football players in the pursuit of their aspiration to one day make it in the upper echelons of the game. This first article will set the scene for the series with an outline of the nature of football in Ireland and what processes a player must endure to get an opportunity at a professional club; the second will highlight the experiences of many players living life as a football migrant; and finally the third article of this series will examine the challenges of players who were deselected prematurely, and what they face upon returning to their homeland.
Irish football clubs, both North and South of the border, have traditionally only been able to offer low-wage contracts to the islands best talent. Problematic league structures mean that Irish football is predominantly part-time – part-time wages, part-time coaching, part-time training and an overall part-time mentality. Thus, for aspiring football talent in Ireland aiming to successfully attain a professional career in the game, outward mobility is a necessity. These young players yearn to one day cross the Irish Sea into the footballing ranks in England or Scotland, which are the most common destinations for those deemed talented enough to warrant one of the very limited spaces at a professional club. The crossing of the Irish Sea has given prominence for the term ‘across the water’ to be used commonly within footballing circles in Ireland. Parents, coaches and significant others will often express how they believe their star player will ‘make it across the water’.
However this is a highly coveted dream, and to merely even knock the door of a professional club, young players must consistently perform on the pitch from a very young age. Talent scouts, like in most countries, are tasked with visually examining the thousands of young Irish grassroots players hopeful of one day becoming the next George Best or Roy Keane. These scouts subjectively siphon through the masses in order to find a gem, a needle in the footballing haystack that may just be potentially skilled enough to make it at the club they represent. After a thorough and rigorous scouting process, in which the player is observed on several occasions, they will be invited to the professional club for a trial.
Preparing for a football trial is a daunting and nerve-racking experience for young players. This is exacerbated if the player must travel to another country in order to attend. At just sixteen or seventeen years of age, players will travel on a plane or boat to attend what is essentially an assessment which may define the rest of their entire life. These young men often partake in this journey feeling anxious and apprehensive about what the club will think of their footballing ability. When attending the trials, players have cited how isolation may become a factor both on and off the field. Trials are a cut-throat event and every player is a threat to one-another as they are all competing for limited places at the club. Being the only Irish-born player at a particular trial has its difficulties when trying to integrate with players of English and Scottish nationalities, especially if the other players already know and have played with or against one-another. It would seem the Irish player is often the outcast before the trial has begun. Of course this isn’t the case at all clubs, but with players being ‘thrown in’ to the trial without as much as getting to meet the rest of the group, the Irish-born player has little opportunity to develop a rapport with anyone.
Failures at this stage are more common than successes. Many will fall at this hurdle, being told by the club coaches that they ‘aren’t the right fit’ or ‘not what they are looking for’. Some players are fortunate enough to be offered trials at various clubs, whereas for others their only opportunity came once and they must hope for one day to be offered another trial. For those who are unsuccessful at the trial stage, the reality sinks in that they must start planning for a career outside of football. Having gotten a bite at the cherry and not progressed, players at this point will normally accept that football will merely be a pipe-dream.
Should the player be successful or indeed if the club believes they are talented enough to skip the trial process – albeit the latter is rare – there are commonly two possibilities. They will be offered a scholarship contract, formally known as a Youth Training Scheme (YTS); or they will be directly signed on a professional contract – again, this possibility is scarce. For individuals entering via the former, the aim is to be signed professionally after their scholarship which normally lasts a maximum of two years. For these players, they must start planning for life away from Ireland and into the precarious world of professional football, where a different series of challenges await.
The next article of this three-part series will shed light on the experiences of Irish-born football migrants whilst at their host club/country. It will examine the challenges of preparing to move away from home, living away from family, the issues many face in their new job, dealing with life as a professional footballer, overcoming boredom, handling injuries and how homesickness may impact on their lives.
About the author: Ryan Adams is a PhD student at Ulster University, Jordanstown. His topic specifically focuses on the post-migration experiences of Irish-born football players who have been deselected from their professional clubs. Ryan holds a BSc degree in Sport: Theory and Practice; and an MSc in Sports Development and Coaching. His previous research has focused on player development strategies within the Irish Football Association; and ‘pre, during and post’ migration experiences amongst Irish-born football players. He is also an amateur football manager, having previously managed in the Northern Amateur Football League and Mid-Ulster Football League in Northern Ireland.
Follow on Twitter: @Ryan_Adams11 – Any feedback, critique or questions on this article are welcomed.