With Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Luis Garcia plying their trade in India, Didier Drogba having a spell in China and David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry based in States, I started thinking about labour mobility for footballers. I think it’s fair to say the lure of a bumper contract for elite players who have spent the bulk of their careers in the English Premier League has caused many older professionals to move to foreign destinations to play football.
The question I ask is whether Ireland was a leader on this front – offering a retirement home to the great footballers in their professional dotage?
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the destination for many elite English footballers was our domestic league, the League of Ireland. Below is a list of elite English players who ventured to Ireland late in their career to play football. The average age of those that arrived from 1973 to 1989 was 35 and a half. Only George Best was in his 20’s, and given his extravagant lifestyle this was probably nearer the end of his career than your average footballer. The list includes some very famous names including Bobby Charlton, who signed for Waterford, and Gordon Banks who played for St.Patricks Athletic. Both Charlton and Banks were part of the English World Cup winning team in 1966.
While many other famous players arrived at Irish shores to play football before the 1970’s such as Raich Carter (1953) and Dixie Dean (1939), and some non-English based elite players such as World Cup winner Uwe Seeler with Cork Celtic in 1978, it seems that the migration of elite talent to the League of Ireland really began to take off in the 1970’s. From my count 16 elite players came from England between 1973 and 1989, I may have missed some others. Most of the players below were accessed here from a interesting piece written by Colm Murphy for the Dundalk FC magazine.
With the development of the game internationally and thanks to the lowering of transport costs, many new options have since opened up for the Premier League stars. This has widened the labour market for aging footballers and presented them with far more lucrative options near the end of their careers in locations around the world that Irish clubs cannot compete with.
Now, migrating to the States, India or China for elite footballers in their 30's is seen as a natural step in their career, but the next time you see a player heading off from the Premier League, usually to warmer climes, keep in mind that the aging talent often migrated but just didn't travel as far!