For Irish-born football players, signing for a club ‘across the water’ constitutes the ultimate dream. However, very often this dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.
The bags are packed, passport ready, the one-way ticket in hand, travelling alone for the first time and about to embark on the biggest journey of a lifetime – the journey into professional football. This is the picture of many young talented football players from the island of Ireland, forced to migrate at sixteen or seventeen, chasing the glorious dream of one day becoming a professional superstar. The fact is, they are going into the unknown. In this second part of a three-part series for SportExamined.com, I articulate the potential challenges and encounters awaiting Irish born football players embarking on their journeys into professional clubs in England or Scotland. Drawn from academic research which focused on a cohort of players from Northern Ireland (NI), the article illustrates some important insights into what it may really be like being a migrant professional footballer.
It is not the intention of this article to paint an entirely bleak picture of professional football, there are of course numerous success stories of players who ‘make it’ in the game. However it is important to understand these cases are rare, and furthermore recognise how many dreams were crushed in the process. Indeed, according to a previous study undertaken by the Irish FA – which governs football North of the border – 87% of players who sign for, and therefore migrate to professional clubs in England or Scotland, return home within two years for a variety of reasons and without a professional football career. This means that around 9 out of 10 players who believe they are realising their dream of becoming a footballer are released from their club and unable to continue their professional career.
Football is a cut-throat industry. Looking from the outside, it’s often easy to forget that players are employees, carrying out a specialised form of work in order to make a living, and this is not always as lucrative as many expect. Before achieving salary levels of thousands of pounds per week, most players must climb the pecking order at their club to become a valued asset worthy of a large salary. As the clubs see it, players constitute mere commodities, they are individuals that provide a service on behalf of the club. If that service is below the required standard, they become surplus to requirements and there are an abundance of rival players relishing the opportunity to gain one of the rare spaces in the matchday squad.
Most talented young Irish born players enter professional football in the later years of the club academy setup, normally at the age of 16-17, and sign Youth Training Scheme (YTS) or scholarship contracts. There are a small number of players who sign directly on professional contracts but these instances are rare, and the YTS route at the age of 16-17 is more common. At this tender age, the player is expected to make the life-changing decision to migrate to a new country and leave their friends and family behind. On arrival to their club accommodation they will either be greeted by a family who will act not dissimilar to a ‘foster family’, or they will live in shared accommodation with other players, known as ‘digs’. They must decide whether or not to continue their school education outside of football; they must adapt to full-time training, a new footballing culture and a new societal culture; as well as spending their new-found finances and spare time sensibly. All of this whilst trying to impress their new employer by performing on the pitch on a regular basis.
With all of these issues playing out simultaneously, it is unsurprising that many Irish born players report difficulties living in their host country. Due to a lack of prior preparation for the standard of football, players often find difficulty settling into their new club and it often takes considerable time to adapt to the full time, professional structure of the game. That said, most players feel that over time they do acclimatise to the standard required of them and it is the off-field issues that contribute more to a return home.
Not only are Irish born players unprepared for football at the professional level, they are unprepared for moving away from home. Homesickness is a serious issue for many players whilst living in their host country. This contrasts with their English and Scottish counterparts who are able to live in the comfort of their own homes whilst playing in professional football, unfortunately for Irish born players, especially those living in digs, evenings and weekends can be a very lonely time. Filling the spare time is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for players who move across the water. If homesickness isn’t already an issue, many players struggle to develop meaningful friendships with teammates, whereas others fall into the wrong group of friends and may become ill-disciplined.
If players do struggle with homesickness in their spare time, or indeed any other off-field issue, further problems occur as the culture of professional football clubs means that players are unable to show signs of weakness or else they risk losing their position in the team. Every player at the club, especially those on YTS deals, is desperate to earn one of the few available professional contracts. To gain a contract they are expected to perform on the pitch, but equally as important they must demonstrate great enthusiasm for the club. To do this they must masquerade their emotions and remain quiet about their underlying personal issues. The masculine culture of professional clubs means that players must laugh along with the ‘banter’ and remain one of the ‘lads’ despite the fact they may have serious off-field issues, which of course many migrant players do. These players are afraid to seek support from the club, at the risk of the manager finding out and thinking the player is ‘weak’ or may cause problems, and thus over time these issues exacerbate, often resulting in a release from the club.
The bitter reality is that what first felt like a dream come true turns into a nightmare fairly quickly and for those who get released, a return home beckons. However this again comes with a lot of difficulties as these players who had prepared for life as a professional footballer must return home to play part time, and also find alternative work to earn a living. The main question Irish born players ask themselves upon being released is; where do they go from there?
About the author: Ryan Adams is a PhD researcher 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.
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