As 52-week contracts return to the League of Ireland for the top three teams, there are still difficult tales for players competing outside the country’s elite clubs.
Starting on 1 December, Cork City, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers signed their players on deals that run all year round for the forthcoming season, including a three-year deal for Lilywhite defender Sean Gannon.
It is a total contrast to previous seasons and a sign of some progress in the domestic game, with the rise in prize money from the Champions League and Europa League helping that pathway.
But for most clubs and players, that luxury still eludes.
Goalkeeper Shaun Patton has spoken of the sequence of events that has left his career in limbo, and forced him to seriously consider turning his back on soccer to focus instead on GAA.
Patton moved to Sligo Rovers a year ago after stints with Finn Harps and then Derry City. Like all players, it was a deal that lasted up until the final game of the year and not for the winter months.
The 22-year-old primarily deputised for Micheál Schlingermann in what was a tough campaign for Gerard Lyttle’s men, but, after the first-choice stopper suffered a neck injury, he got the nod for the final weeks of the season, including the crucial final game away to Drogheda United.
Sligo needed a point to guarantee survival in what proved to be a dramatic race to avoid the drop. Patton had already risen to the challenge of stepping into a starting role for some big games.
With just over an hour gone, and the game scoreless, disaster struck for the Donegal man.
“It was just a late tackle from a young fella who’d just come on,” he tells RTÉ Sport.
“I cleared the ball, planted my foot and he’s come through me and caught my planted foot, bending it out the wrong way.
“I got it X-rayed the next morning. They sent me home saying it was grand and all clear. But I knew something still wasn’t right.
“I got an appointment for the fracture clinic in Letterkenny. They looked over the X-ray and they saw a small fracture. The ligament had been torn off the bone. It was a severe enough injury and I’d been hobbling around on crutches for a week probably when I should have been in a cast.
“I got in, I would say, five or six games beforehand and was starting to do well. Then that happened. It put a dampener on the whole party of getting my chance and taking it.”
“I had no income. I couldn’t draw the dole because I’m living at home with my parents.”
His frustration was about to be compounded. Like nearly all other players in the league, Patton’s contract had expired, but his circumstances had changed dramatically due to the injury.
In almost all purposes, he had suffered the injury with just 30 minutes left on his deal, putting his chances of a renewal completely up in the air, but it would also impact on his earnings outside of the game while he waited for a new playing deal.
“My contract was up. It’s kind of left me in a sticky situation because I had a job planned for the Monday after the season finished and I couldn’t work for the whole of November.
“I had no income. I couldn’t draw the dole because I’m living at home with my parents. I tried to apply for sick leave but it didn’t come through.
“I contacted the PFAI to see if I’d be due any kind of compensation because I was out of work. I was injured and I couldn’t work. They said, ‘unfortunately once the contract is expired you’re not due any compensation and you’re not really covered in any sense’.
“I’m covered in that if I need physiotherapy they have to look after me up to three months after the injury. They have to cover all the hospital stuff. Sligo would have to provide a physio, but now that I’m working in Letterkenny I can’t exactly go down so it’s not something I can pursue.”
Patton is being forced to consider a different path. Sligo have not yet offered him a deal, and it remains to be seen if there is future contact with nothing forthcoming as of yet. He admits disappointment that they haven’t offered more clarity. It’s a situation many others face but Patton’s worries understandably seem greater.
There has been some interest from other clubs, mainly from the First Division, but he’s not overly keen on stepping down a level.
More appealing is a change of sport. Patton helped St Eunan’s College to win a county title in 2014, and admits a return to the parish, with the ultimate aim of getting on the Donegal panel, is tempting.
“I’m looking at a change possibly towards the GAA. I’ve a couple of decisions to make… but the GAA is there.
“I played with St Eunan’s. (Playing for Donegal) would be my aim. If I went back that would be my aim, to get back up to the highest level possible.
“It’s heartbreaking. I kept three clean sheets in six games, which I think personally was a big help in keeping the club up.
“If Sligo had come in and asked me if I wanted to sign back the day after, I’d have signed in a heartbeat. It’s a lovely club and a lovely place. This has left me in limbo. It’s just football. Sometimes you can be just a number and you pass in and out a door.”