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League One

Andy Ritchie's Blog 29

6 March 2013

Life as a lower league professional footballer has never been as precarious as it is today.

No player has ever enjoyed guarantees that they've got a job for the long haul, but now more than ever before, because of the financial climate it's as insecure as I can remember it.

Kevin Blackwell revealed last week that several of his Bury players are actually playing 'for free'. He's used up his budget and can't afford to pay them wages, but what he can do is offer them first-team football and the chance to showcase their abilities not just to his club, but to others that might be watching, too.

This is the way football is going, and I don't think players have any choice but to accept the situation and make the best of it. If they're without a club and can afford to spend a short while without income it makes sense - to me at least - for them to grab the opportunity to play.

From Bury's perspective, I'm sure they'd prefer to sign players to proper contracts and pay them, but I totally see the logic in their approach. It makes sense.

What would I do? I'd definitely grab the chance to play. Naturally I'd need to have enough savings to handle it financially, and if I did, I'd bust a gut to impress. Hopefully after three, four or five good performances a player would be able to knock on the manager's door and say, 'will you pay me now?' If that's not possible, you'd like to think someone else would have spotted the good work.

I also hope that agents will encourage their players to have a crack at this, too. Let's be honest, nobody wants to work for free, and you shouldn't have to, but if you want to be a professional footballer at the moment this is the kind of thing more and more young players are going to have to consider.

This weekend the Shakers travel to Fratton Park to meet fellow strugglers Portsmouth, who will be buoyed by their first win in 24 games at Crewe Alexandra last Saturday. Manager Guy Whittingham looked ecstatic at the result, and who can blame him.

With a financial boost from the local council and a date in the offing for their all-important court case in April, there is finally some light amid the gloom at Pompey. Everybody hopes they'll be able to preserve their Football League status, and for now at least the team itself has something to fight for on the pitch as well.

It was good to see Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cooper get off to a winning start as the new Swindon Town management team at Coventry City on Saturday. Mark's an experienced coach who'll provide great support for Kevin, who will be determined to grasp his first stab at first team management with both hands.

I know that Swindon have had their own issues to deal with, but it's a great club, with a terrific squad of players. After 17 years at Aston Villa it must have been a wrench for Kevin to leave, but he's inherited a wonderful job. Promotion within the first few months of his tenure is a very real possibility.

Chris Kiwomya has also landed on his feet, too. Notts County are another excellent club, and he couldn't have wished for a better role to start his own career as a Football League manager.

One of Notts County's main men on the pitch this season has been Dean Leacock, and I was fascinated to read about how close he came to quitting the game before Keith Curle took him to Meadow Lane last summer.

After leaving Derby County he found life really tough at Leyton Orient last season. He was in a really bad place, not enjoying his football at all, especially when he was out of the first team.

Dean had had enough of the pro game and became very low, until Notts County came in and took a chance on resurrecting his career, putting the smile back on the 28-year-old's face again.

So many footballers end up in similar situations to Dean; it's frightening. Out of favour, training on their own or with the youth team, and losing almost all of their self-belief - it's little wonder that many get fed up and leave football, or as we devastatingly hear about sometimes slump into depression.

When managers take their badges these days, psychology and human well-being is a big part of the curriculum and thank goodness it is. Managers don't get enough credit for the way they handle players' lives in my opinion.

Keith Curle's faith in Dean restored the lad's belief in himself, and sometimes that's all it takes. It's a nice story.

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