Smaller squads, lower wages and shorter deals, plus more free agents on the market than ever before – has there been a worse time to be an out-of-contract footballer?
While the Premier League and Championship resume behind closed doors this week as coronavirus restrictions ease, hundreds of professional players from outside the top two tiers will be released at the end of June, not knowing when they will kick a ball again, or for whom.
Until a decision is made on when the next campaign starts at the lower levels of the game, many of them are in limbo, waiting to find out if they will be offered a new deal or facing months without a wage while they find a new club – and wondering what to do next.
Here are some of their stories.
‘Make sure you will be OK if you are not paid for a few months’
James Jennings, 32, left-back for Wrexham, finished 20th in National League
I drew up a CV for the first time last week – it seemed like a good time to do it. Hopefully I won’t have to use it, but at least I will be ready in case I do.
The whole landscape of football has changed and it looks as if there are going to be huge wage cuts across every level, even at the top. That is going to filter down the pyramid.
They are talking about salary caps in the EFL, so it is going to have a massive effect on non-league football, certainly for the next 12 months.
There are going to be around 1,400 free agents in the EFL alone this summer, so there could be a massive influx of players coming down to our level, competing for contracts.
On top of that, most National League clubs are almost certainly going to be operating with smaller squads, and offering lower wages.
I can see more younger players being involved in the game because of that – they would be more likely to be able to accept having to live on less money.
For older players such as me, it’s not straightforward. While football has served me well and I still think I have got another few years in me at this level, I have a family to provide for.
Soon I will have to make serious decisions about whether to carry on playing or get another job until football resumes, then maybe get back involved at whatever level I can.
It’s been something I have been thinking about for the past four or five years anyhow. I’ve been lucky enough to play professionally since I was 17 but I always knew that at some point I was going to have to move into a different career.
You can prepare all you like, but you could never be ready for a situation like this.
Like a lot of professional players at this level, I have been out of contract before, but it is different this time – there is the fear of the unknown about what happens next.
In normal circumstances, I would have known whether I was on Wrexham’s retained list a long time ago. Players would be due back in pre-season training in a couple of weeks and, even if I was still looking for a contract, I would be in dialogue with quite a few clubs.
But none of that can happen until we find out when the new season will start. That is what makes things so uncertain for so many people.
A lot of players, including me, still don’t know if we will be offered a new deal by our current clubs because the managers don’t know what their budget is going to be.
If the National League made a decision and said ‘we start in September’, then clubs could start speaking properly to players.
Even if they said there will be no football at this level until fans can come back in January, then at least players would know and they could prepare financially.
It sounds quite dramatic but that is what I have been telling other players since football stopped – to plan for the worst, and to make sure you are going to be OK if you don’t get paid for a few months.
‘I’m one of the lucky ones to be offered a contract’
Danny Rose, 32, midfielder for Swindon, finished first in League Two
I was one of the lucky ones – I was told a while ago that I would be offered a new contract when my current deal finishes at the end of June, so that put my mind at rest a little bit.
Now the club know for sure what division we will be in next season – having been promoted to League One – they will be able to sort out their budget and open negotiations with the players they want to keep.
For the people without a contract offer, I think there will be a scramble going on when there is a date announced for the new season. I would imagine there will be lots more players than normal going on trial at clubs when pre-season starts.
I guess most of the players at Swindon at the moment are in a reasonably healthy position because we have had a successful season, so usually those players are in demand.
If you are a player who has either just been relegated or had an average season, then you are probably a bit more worried about things – I have been there myself – and wondering about where you go from here.
Those players will be thinking about where their money is going to come from once their current contract ends, but there are other issues to deal with, like a drop in status if you decide to go down a level or two to try to work your way back up.
There could be hundreds of players without a club who know they are talented but are at a career crossroads and thinking ‘what on earth do I do now?’
They are going to need support. Mental health issues in football are getting a lot more awareness but, given the situation, I can only think there are going to be more players affected in the months ahead.
‘I will have to wait and see what is on the table’
Remi Matthews, 26, goalkeeper for Bolton, finished 23rd in League One
It is scary times for players like me who are coming to the end of their contracts.
It is the first time in my career that I am potentially going to be a free agent and, given what is going on, it has probably happened to me at the worst possible time.
But I hope being a free agent is going to be a positive. Clubs generally are not able to spend £2m or £3m on a player so, overall, I would probably say that I am in a strong position.
Performance-wise, I have done OK in what has been a negative season, so I think I will be alright but it will be a case of waiting to see what is on the table.
We will see what Bolton say in the next couple of weeks contract-wise, but with us being told we are relegated to League Two now, they are going to have to cut their budget.
I have had bits of interest from elsewhere but, as every player knows, until you get something concrete, then it can mean nothing.
At the minute, it is just about being patient and hopefully things will come up.