SPFL Free Agent – Chasing Dreams or Lost Causes?

Small logo Pure FitbawWe all believe to some extent that footballers are invincible and live lavish, stress free lifestyles with more girlfriends than problems. However, they can face stress, anxiety, fear and doubt on a regular basis just the same as you and me. It is easy to forget that every year thousands of players face the harsh reality of being told that their services are no longer needed and that their club is going to release them.

How would you feel? Imagine how disheartening it would be for you to walk into your workplace only to be told; “sorry we don’t want you anymore”  or “we can’t afford to keep you”.  This can be reality for some of us on occasion but the majority of football players in Scotland face this sort of challenge every single year.

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Former Partick Thistle, Kilmarnock, Ayr and Falkirk player Conrad Balatoni is now, like many other footballers, facing the prospect of unemployment and has to decide whether to continue to chase his dream or move into the supposed ‘real world’. Balatoni has made 240 appearances in the top two tiers of Scottish football. 136 of those appearances were for Partick Thistle and he was a key part of their SPL First Division (now rebranded as SPFL Championship) title-winning team in 2011/12. Since the conclusion of a short term contract with Torquay United at the end of the 2017/18 season the twenty-seven year old, a modern style centre back renowned for his ball playing ability combined with tough tackling, has been looking for a new footballing home.

Pure Fitbaw spoke to Balatoni in an attempt to understand what it’s like to be a football free agent.

Highs and Lows

Baltoni reflected on his five year stint with the Jags and picked out his biggest achievement in football;

“Winning the first division with Partick Thistle and getting promoted to the top flight.

It was an unbelievable season when Jackie McNamara and Alan Archibald were in charge and was one of the highlights of my career. I remember we started the season on fire and won all our preseason friendlies and then the first 6 games in the league.

We just knew that we were going to do well.”

Football can be a bittersweet experience for fans. Balatoni told us about his greatest disappointment and makes it clear it can be bittersweet for players too as we immediately move from the adulation experienced as a result of promotion to the polar opposite in his career;

“Relegation with Ayr and Torquay over the last two years (is my biggest disappointment).

You feel responsible. You know how much it means to the fans and the staff at the club. You know there are things that could and should have been done differently by the players and management.

(I was) living out of hotels down in Torquay away from my family and friends. I took a gamble to stay in full-time football. I knew it was a big ask as they were 11 points adrift but I felt that I wanted to stay full time and if this was successful it could have opened more doors for me down South so it was a gamble worth taking.”

When Balatoni opens up about his walks around the town and microwave meals eaten alone it feels like the furthest thing away from what would be perceived as the lifestyle of a full-time footballer. Isolated to an extent, away from their families and having to go out to restaurants alone just to get a healthy meal shows the dedication that can be required of footballers who want to keep their dream alive.

 

In 2015, after five years with Partick Thistle Balatoni had a long, difficult summer as three months went past without the right offer to play for a new club. He had decided it was the right time to move on from the Jags and, after his aspirations to move to a club abroad came to nothing but wasted time, Balatoni eventually got the chance of a short-term deal with Kilmarnock.

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He won a two year extension just four games into his short-term contract and it seemed like things were on the up for Yorkshire born defender. In the 2015/16 season he made thirty appearances and scored three goals for the Ayrshire club but things changed under a new manager, Lee Clark, who had joined in February 2016.

“Lee Clark pulled me into the office and told me I was no longer part of his plans. I was frozen out from the first team and made to train with the (under) 20’s which was difficult for me to accept”

Football seems to be one of the few working environments where it is accepted, and almost encouraged, to segregate employees in this way. Could this be classed as bullying in the workplace? At the very least it seems that this sort of management style would not be approved of in most other forms of employment. Balotoni commented on what he views as attempts by clubs to make players’ positions untenable;

“It would have been easy for me to walk away and leave the club with nothing.

You have to be mentally strong. You have to maintain your professionalism and come to work and do what is asked of you regardless. Just look at Jack Rodwell down at Sunderland they tried to force him out because of his wages but he dug his feet in.

It’s easy to look at him as the bad guy in this situation but would you leave your job because someone said you are on too much money?”

Considering that then Sunderland manager Chris Coleman said he had no idea where Jack Rodwell was it could be claimed that football clubs are at times negligent towards their employees and certainly don’t seem to believe they have any duty of care when it comes to those who play for them.

Trials and Tribulations

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Balatoni has played for and been released by Ayr United, Falkirk and Torquay since his Kilmarnock contract was terminated and states;

“I have been in the position where my contract has run out three times in three years.

It is horrible when it happens to you.”

Pure Fitbaw talked to him about the process of attempting to find a new club –

“The PFA set up exit trials but these are mostly aimed towards the younger player and clubs are more interested in taking speculative punts on younger players on a low-risk contract rather than looking at the guys who have the experience and will command a better financial offer”

– and asked how hard it is to be successful on trial at a club?

“It’s mostly about how you interact with the group. Managers maybe want to see what you are really like because when you have your clips sent to clubs it’s always the best bits, so they want to see what you are like in situations or maybe just to make sure that you fit their plan. My game is to organise and be vocal so I find this part easy it’s just about making sure you are who you are and play to your strengths.

I would always consider a trial if the club was right – that’s how I got my deal with Falkirk.

There is risk attached though if you get injured during a trial that can push you two or three steps back from where you were.”

Balatoni spoke about how there are numerous companies that do showcase trials. These require a payment to be part of the trial process and tend to be aimed at younger players who are desperate to try and chase their dream. The cold reality is this is a money maker for the companies that set up these sort of events and there no guarantees of success for the trialists.

“People don’t understand what it’s really like. I have mates who say; “why don’t you just sign here?” but it’s really not as simple as that.

You can’t just phone and turn up somewhere and expect to play. You have to be wanted.

You can’t just apply for a place in a squad like a normal job – qualifications or experience count for very little as the manager has to want you and with such an open market clubs can keep you waiting. You just don’t know”

It is clear that having a good support network as a player is important and Balatoni spoke about his own friends in the game;

“JC (James Craigen) and Sean Welsh – I speak to them all the time. It’s reassuring to be able to speak to someone understands your position of not being able to do the thing you love the most; especially when it’s all you have ever known”

“Sometimes it’s good just to be able to talk about different stuff as well as it can take your mind off of things that can get to you if it’s all you think of”

Not Ready To Give Up The Ghost

We discuss how the financially prudent Balotoni has avoided risking his family’s future by ensuring his bonuses were put into savings which allowed him to take calculated gambles such as the move to the National League South with Torquay. It’s clear throughout our conversation that Balatoni is a confident and intelligent man and this leads us on to the final stretch of our conversation where we asked about his exit plan for the game;

“(I’ve) always been really interested in money and feel like I could dedicate myself to working in the financial industry. Maybe (as) a financial advisor or a paraplanner. I know that if I was to look at these though it would almost mean the end of my football career as it is now.

“I could play part time as long as it was within forty minutes of Edinburgh but I dedicate myself to what I do and for now I am still dedicated to football and I believe in my ability so I don’t want to focus on that (future career) too much right now.”

 

This video shows that Balatoni is confident in possession and could be a real asset to a lot of clubs.

 

“I am 27 and have played nearly 250 games in the Scottish Premiership, Championship and down South so I have experience.

I read the game well and like to organise the back four. I am confident in my communication to support others whilst being strong in the air.

(I’m) confident I could play a part for almost any SPFL Championship club in Scotland at least”

Given Balatoni’s experiences and comments and the certainty other players have experienced the same should we be asking if the ‘Beautiful Game’ is actually ugly? Why does the mainstream media rarely provide us with details about the harsh realities that players face in terms of job security, life pressures and unfair treatment?

It seems that what could be considered workplace bullying is tolerated and footballers are treated differently – and at times demeaned in front of their peers. Managerial behaviour of this sort would almost certainly end up in an employment tribunal for constructive dismissal in most industries so perhaps it is time for football as a whole to  take a look at itself and the impact on players such as Balatoni which can be caused by the contempt they can be treated with.

 

 

 

 

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