‘There’s no security’ – Testing times for Irish footballers

IT’S A TOUGH time for everyone right now, and footballers are no exception to the rule.

A study by global players’ union FIFPro published on Monday warned of a sharp rise in the number of players reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression since the game was suspended worldwide.

“We have had many concerns about players with their mental response to the isolation. Many of the foreign players don’t have family with them, spend a lot of time on their own, away from their loved ones, which is very challenging,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, FIFPro’s general secretary.

The union’s survey of 1,602 players in 16 countries revealed 13% of men reported symptoms of depression, and 16% symptoms of anxiety. Among women the numbers were higher: 22% for depression and 18% for anxiety.

It is a major increase on a similar study done in January and indicates the same worries felt by the general population about the pandemic are combining with the difficulty of adapting to life without football.

In this country specifically, there are similar concerns. The Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI) have said there has been an increase in members reporting mental health issues in recent weeks, while 62% of Irish players surveyed by FIFPro said they were worried about their future in the game.

Shelbourne’s Karl Moore is one of the many players facing an uncertain period.

An injury meant he missed his side’s opening four league games, but the 31-year-old had been on the verge of a return to action, making the bench for their most recent game with Bohemians, before the coronavirus brought an indefinite halt to proceedings.

“It’s obviously frustrating that you can’t go out,” he tells The42. “I’m missing daily life, missing football and a routine, with the restrictions of what you can and can’t do.”

Newly promoted Shelbourne had made a decent start to the season, with two wins from their opening four fixtures.

At the moment, their players have been given a training programme they must adhere to with a view to action recommencing on 19 June — the date the Football Association of Ireland had earmarked for the league’s return — although that plan looks increasingly optimistic after yesterday’s government announcement that no licences will be given for events of more than 5,000 people until September at the earliest.

Moore is one of the fortunate players in the league who is not relying solely on football for income. Along with his sporting commitments, he currently works in the finance department of facility management company Aramark. 

Having this alternative work can certainly be helpful from a mental perspective too. Philippe Godin, a sports psychologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium, recently told AFP that many footballers are experiencing the same feeling of emptiness that often hits players on retiring, though the blow can often be softened for individuals with alternative professions.

“[Fully professional players] have only one interest, and without that they are lost, unlike other athletes in less comfortable positions who study or work as well,” he explained.

And while he at least has the distraction of work, Moore admits it has not been easy to adjust these past few weeks.

“It probably feels like we’re in a running club now as opposed to a football club. Luckily enough, I have a park across the way, loads of grassy football pitches. So I can kick a ball around, just keep the touches up as well as going out and doing your running exercises that we’ve been given. But it’s tough mentally to stick with the programme.

“The lads are great, the training sessions are good fun and you miss the dressing room banter.

In some ways, League of Ireland players such as Moore are worse off than their more high-profile counterparts across the water.

Many domestic teams tend to struggle to maintain financial stability in a normal season, let alone one interrupted by a global pandemic.

While Premier League sides and other clubs in the top leagues around Europe have the luxury of lucrative TV deals to rely upon, League of Ireland teams invariably generate most of their income from match-day gates and sponsorship. Consequently, clubs in this country appear particularly vulnerable to the impact of the coronavirus, though Shels and others having been doing their best to cope, with podcasts set up among other initiatives.

Like the rest of his team-mates, Moore is currently training in isolation.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Still, Moore acknowledges it is a particularly worrying time and can identify with those players who are struggling amid uncertain futures, with the majority of footballers in the league getting by on short-term contracts. 

“I’ve been at clubs where you have a couple of good years, and then you have a bad run, and you’re turfed out, it’s on to the next one. Given the nature of the contracts, there’s no security there. It is growing a bit now, they’re starting to give out longer contracts and clubs are starting to go full time. For the most part, clubs in the Premier Division are full time and they’re being managed better and more prudently. It is improving, but at the same time, you’d recommend any player in the league to have something to fall back on.

“God forbid, someone gets injured and they could be out of the game for a while. If football’s your life and you’ve nothing to fall back on, it can be hard. So you can understand [the survey results].”

On the contracts issue, Moore continues: “There are the full-time teams, who can give their players [more substantial] contracts, they’re in a position to do so. Fair play to them and players should push for that if they can. I know Bohs are starting to do a little bit of that now, Shels have given out some longer contracts. But that’s what they’re building towards ultimately, as should the rest of the league.

“It’s a bit of a unique league in that sense — contracts aren’t even a year. It could be 40 weeks. In the First Division, I think some of the teams don’t even get paid for pre-season, so it could be 35-week contracts.

After a move to Man City as a youngster didn’t work out and he returned home to Ireland, Moore wisely chose to pursue education in tandem with football and he urges others to do the same.

“When you’re playing, you’ve a lot of spare time, so it’s just making use of it and being smart — don’t sleep until 12 in the day, get up and go through the motions. It’s just about finding ways to occupy your time — I did my courses and went to college.

“I was a position where I came back from the UK and all my friends had been through college at that stage.

“They were getting jobs, so I figured I might as well make use of my time while I have it, because when you get older, your time becomes a bit more limited, you’ve more responsibilities, so you find it tougher.

The current lockdown has served to reinforce the precariousness of life as a footballer, as it also has for many other professions. One of the few positives that can be taken from the present situation is the amplification of that fact.

“I think a lot of the younger lads coming into the league now are in college courses, or they’re encouraged to do something,” the Dubliner adds.

“The ones that aren’t maybe need a wake-up call to get their act together. When you’re younger, all you want to be is a footballer. You think: ‘I’ll be a footballer all my life, I’ll train at a top team and might get a move to England.’ In reality, it doesn’t work out like that all the time. As you grow up, you grow a little bit wiser, and the sooner you start doing that, the better a chance you have.”

Additional reporting by AFP, originally published at 06.00

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