Tom Davies meets up with Leyton Orient defender and PFA representative Dean Smith to gain an insight into the players' perspective of the crisis hitting lower-league clubs
Have players in the lower divisions become more insecure about their jobs in recent years?
I think so, yes. Squads are getting smaller again and it does seem to have been getting harder and harder in recent years for players being released at the end of the season to find another club, whereas in seasons before it was quite easy. Players are having to look lower down, and more are going into non-League football. Which means many have got to come to terms with part-time football and finding another job. As a result, the Conference teams are getting stronger – there are a lot of players in the Conference who could be playing in the Football League.
Are there more players on short-term deals now than before?
It’s definitely the trend. I’m 31 now, but I always encourage all young players to get as long a deal as they can. If you’re good enough, you will always get the opportunities to better your career, but there are so many players about, and more free transfers now, that clubs can enjoy rich pickings. So I’d always say to young lads, if there’s a contract on offer there, sign – and for as long as possible.
Are players less likely to move to the town that they’re playing in now that they are changing clubs with greater frequency? Does this cause problems between players and managers?
It doesn’t really cause problems, but I have noticed as my career’s gone on that players are travelling greater distances. When I was at Walsall earlier in my career everyone lived in and around the Birmingham area, but that’s changed. [Orient team-mate] Iyseden Christie lives in Coventry, for example, travels every day and he’s never had a problem with it, although I wouldn’t enjoy it myself. But the trend is there, and it is difficult, if you’re a Third Division player, to be continually moving homes, especially in somewhere like London where house prices are so expensive.
Do clubs – or agents – discourage players from getting involved in the PFA?
Managers are not generally suspicious. After all, most managers and coaches are ex-players. As for chairmen and directors, well most of our dealings with PFA officials when they come down are on the training ground, and they’re not there so it’s not really an issue. I’m sure agents are more worried though, because the PFA can pretty much do the job of an agent and can do so for less money. I’m sure the agents would like the players all for themselves.
Could a proposed salary cap work? Would it level out salaries within a squad?
I’m not sure the salary cap really worked when they tried it in America. I can understand where the idea’s coming from with all the money that’s being spent, but there isn’t really a great deal of resentment within squads over different wage levels. Ultimately, we’re all footballers and everyone has the same understanding – if you’re offered extra money, and you can get a deal you’re happy with, you take it. If you’re not, then don’t sign. It’s a short career and you’ve just got to try to do as well as you can.
Do players feel as though they’re competing more against each other for jobs, now that clubs are releasing more players in the summer?
Things have certainly changed. For example, you’re seeing experienced players at the end of contracts having to go for trials at other clubs, whereas before they would have just been snapped up straight away. This used to be unheard of. So that has an effect. And there are going to be maybe 600 or 700 people out on free transfers in the summer.
Has the availability of cheap foreign players affected players’ job security and is there likely to be a bigger influx into the lower divisions?
There will probably be more foreign triallists I think, and if they make the grade that’s fair enough – we’ve got freedom of movement. Of course it means less room for home-grown players, but if a player from abroad is better than a home-grown player, then fine.
How much do players know about the way their club is run financially – and how much do they care?
There’s a greater awareness now definitely, because when you’ve got situations where the PFA are having to step in and pay wages and clubs are facing bankruptcy, then you’re talking about 30-odd livelihoods at stake. So there’s a lot more interest from players now.
Do most players take advantage of the advice on pensions and careers that the PFA offers?
Yes, and I think they have to, because in football your pension is based on the idea that you’ll be retiring from the game at 35. Now for the top half of football, in the Premiership, you could retire completely at that age, but for the rest of us, we’ll be looking for another career after football so it’s vital people get the right advice. The PFA has six or seven financial advisers covering designated areas. Ours, Bobby Barnes [formerly of West Ham, Northampton and others], comes to see us frequently to advise the lads about pensions etc. They also help people who have been released and have drifted out of the game.
Is there a conflict in the type of advice players are likely to receive from the PFA and from agents or the clubs?
I’ve never had an agent myself – I’ve always been happy to go through the PFA – but there are about 10-12 players at the club who do. I’d imagine agents are more likely to be seeking different clubs for their clients, that they’ll always be phoning and saying “I can get you this club, or that club”, but the PFA know the details of contracts and the overall running of the game better.
What impact will the possible collapse of the ITV Digital deal have for players at clubs such as Orient?
If the clubs have already budgeted for the money that they’re supposed to be getting then obviously it will make a lot of difference. We’re relatively fortunate at Orient in that we’re being run as a good business, but overall it could have a big impact. Of course the PFA went through a similar dispute over money that we felt was owed to us earlier this season. And obviously if the TV money went down the union would lose out too.
In the light of all this, are the issues that sprang up around the strike threat likely to arise again?
No. We’ve agreed a percentage of TV deals over a ten-year period, and we will stand by that. We got what we wanted in the end. The clubs understood what we were looking for and that players were going to back their union, as anyone would. All the players I spoke to at smaller clubs backed the union because they know that the PFA does so much for them.
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month