Prolonged contract negotiations between players and clubs often end in ignominy, but recent events at League of Ireland club Bohemians had a lot more at stake than loss of face. Days before Christmas the club was served with a winding-up order by two players who, along with eight others, had been negotiating severance packages after Bohemians revealed they could not honour their contracts for next season and that they hoped to provide a budget in line with the FAI's licensing criteria.
All but one of the ten players had not been paid since the end of November, and when it was made clear that no money would be available until January at the earliest the pair decided to take legal action. The two players, Brian Shelley and Steven Gray, took the action with the guidance of the players' union (PFAI) lawyer as they believed the €4,000 (£3,400) owed was available to the club.
The club had continued to pay Paddy Madden, who has received interest from Celtic and Burnley, so as not to jeopardise a possible transfer fee. Bohemians said that while they had received money as loans from members, the terms of the loans meant they were unable to pay until agreement was reached with all players. The players contested that their unpaid wages had nothing to do with the severance negotiations. The impasse rumbled on until the PFAI announced that Shelley and Gray would hold a press conference at FAI HQ, where the union is also housed. FAI chief executive John Delaney decided the matter had gone far enough and stepped in, the press conference was postponed and a new round of negotiations began.
Delaney met with the players and club separately, and within 24 hours agreement was reached. While not made public, it is believed that the FAI will pay Bohs the money to clear the players' unpaid wages and deduct the amount from future prize money, while the club will use the members' loans to pay 13 weeks' wages as severance. The end result is that the brinkmanship of the Bohs board will pay off, as they will likely get a licence to compete in the Premier Division next season.
The FAI's licensing process was introduced when the association took over the running of the league in 2006 as a measure to ensure the league remained financially stable. The league was the first in Europe to introduce a Salary Cost Protocol, which meant clubs could not spend more than 65 per cent of turnover on players' wages. But the winter off-season has been bleak for a number of years as clubs scramble to cover the cracks in order to meet the licensing criteria.
Last year Derry City were demoted to the First Division after a player on loan at another club complained to the PFAI of unpaid wages and inadvertently revealed an indiscretion between his true contract and the one lodged with the FAI. Cork City were liquidated due to being unable to pay players and other creditors, but with an unwieldy suffix all was forgotten, as Cork City FORAS (Friends of Rebel Army Society) Co-op was granted a licence within weeks.
The 65 per cent wage cap has routinely been manipulated by clubs in order to build a competitive team from the small pool of quality players willing to play in the league. At some clubs players were given nominal second roles ranging from schoolboy team coaches to barmen so as to enhance their wages without falling foul of the salary protocol. At a time when most clubs were generously backed by property developers, due to their grounds being on prime real estate in town centres, such indiscretions mattered little. But the economic crisis has seen the benefactors withdraw and clubs must now operate with more discretion.
At the end of the season some managers criticised players for failing to recognise the constraints under which clubs were now operating. The PFAI's decision to enter a team in the Oslo tournament for out of contract players, run by the international union FifPro, was said to have given the players an extra card in contract talks. But as the season draws closer, and with most clubs having opted for part-time set-ups, many out-of-contract players have taken one-year deals. Full-time contracts will now translate to the length of the season, with few players on 52 weeks pay.
While Bohemians will survive, the wider repercussions mean that in the years to come even more Irish players who wish to pursue a career in the game will be forced to forgo the national league in favour of the lower leagues of England and Scotland.
From WSC 289 March 2011