I wasn't really involved with the player union until a few months ago. But this season was a real eye-opener for me: I got to see first-hand how hard our union, the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland, works for players.
PFA Ireland helped bring in a minimum wage deal for players in the League of Ireland. From the start of next season, full-time professionals over 20 years of age will receive at least €430 a week. Part-time players, meanwhile, are entitled to a minimum wage of €130 a week as well as being paid during pre-season, which wasn’t the case before.
Working with the player union, I got to see behind-the-scenes what was going on in the league and I sat in some meetings with the Football Association of Ireland and PFA Ireland. As players, we don’t often see that side of football as we’re focused on business on the pitch.
I learned how much clubs were paying players – and it was disgraceful, to be honest. There were full-time players on as little as €150 a week, which is not sustainable. The reality is a lot of these players are younger lads who would have had to give up college [higher secondary education] because they would have commitments to their full-time clubs.
In both the Premier Division and First Division, there are a mix of full-time and part-time clubs. Effectively, part-time players work during the day in another occupation – such as a builder, painter-decorator – and are expected to train in the evenings and perform at the weekend. Whereas full-time players are training in the mornings, doing double sessions and living fully as a professional footballer.
I went from part-time to full-time this year and there’s a proper realisation that you’re a professional footballer. Waking up and going to do the thing you love the most each morning was the biggest thing for me.
With the introduction of this minimum wage, it means that players are now being valued for what they're doing and because of that, players feel appreciated by their clubs. Players are being treated like full-time professionals now, which is the main thing for this league.
I've played in the League of Ireland for a number of years, and I know how important this will be for younger players especially. Clubs who were paying €150 will now have to pay that same player nearly €300 extra a week.
The minimum wage is going to change the way the league and teams are run in Ireland. We want to improve the standard and we want to create that full-time environment across the two leagues in the country. This is one step towards that – and I feel the union are certainly working towards that goal.
The reality of it is: if we want to see progress in Ireland, if we want to see Irish clubs further progress in European competitions, we need to build a full-time league, where every player is full-time, and is able to concentrate on football as his main career.
Full-time leagues would create a better standard of football, attract better players from abroad, and encourage youngsters to come through Irish academies – especially when they know they're being valued; that they're getting paid for the work they're doing.
“If we keep introducing more measures from the players' union and keep working towards that full-time league, it will only help Irish players get that senior experience before going to England or wherever it may be. ”— by Andy Lyons
It means that when teams are playing in Europe, they're used to playing against full-time opponents on a regular basis – and hopefully that will result in even better performances for us in European competitions, where Irish clubs are getting to the group stages every year.
I made my debut in Europe at 19. That was a brilliant learning experience and this year with Shamrock Rovers, we got to the group stages.
In the past, a lot of young players have left Ireland to play under-23 football in the UK. I can only speak from my first-hand experience that playing senior full-time football in Ireland has been pivotal in my career.
It's vital that Irish players aren't going to England or Scotland too early. There's absolutely nothing wrong with playing in Ireland until a certain age, getting that experience, and then moving on when you feel the time is right.
If we keep introducing more measures from the players' union and keep working towards that full-time league, it will only help Irish players get that senior experience before going to England or wherever it may be.