AS I sat in a bar last weekend surrounded by friends watching Liverpool and Aston Villa, I was asked the question, what is the difference between professional and amateur athletes?
My immediate response was that you can be guaranteed that amateur athletes care more about the sport that they are involved in than a professional. Of course, there are a lot of differences besides amateur athletes caring more than a professional, but as a professional, sport is a job and the majority of those athletes would not continue playing if it didn’t pay the bills.
I’ve been very privileged to earn a living doing something I loved. My dream was always to be a professional soccer player. I always believed growing up that being a professional footballer was the greatest job a person could have but that’s what football became for me, a job.
When I was younger, playing for Cobh Ramblers, Waterford and Cork City was about enjoyment but the moment I signed for Preston North End and became a full-time professional footballer, my perspective changed and the number one priority was about earning money and not enjoying football.
I’ve never earned the kind of money that would let me live the high life, in fact, I probably would have been better financially staying in the League of Ireland playing part-time and having a proper job. I must admit, at times, I didn’t care about the result in games, and if we lost a match it wouldn’t affect me.
All I cared about was that my bills were getting paid at the end of the month. If you had said to me at any stage during my time in the UK would I carry on playing for free, it wouldn’t have been a hard decision to finish up playing football. That’s because my mindset did switch from football being something I loved to something I had to carry on doing to earn a living. That’s obviously not the case for amateur athletes.
All of my close friends are GAA players and the commitment and love they show their club is something I have not seen from any of my teammates throughout my career. I admire GAA players and in particular those who play both club and inter-county. The sacrifices they make to represent is remarkable.
They work all day, train most evenings and spent their weekends travelling the country to play a game. Whereas, on the other hand, you have some soccer players who will train for two hours a day, get paid for it and still complain.
My attitude did change this year and it was more about me enjoying football again rather than the financial side of the game. Most older players are looking for that one last big contract towards the tail end of their career whereas I decided this year to turn down a handsome contract offer to play as a striker — a position I don’t enjoy — to instead enjoy playing the sport again as a defender.
The big difference why some players make it as a professional soccer player and others don’t is mentality. I’m certainly not the most gifted player. I wouldn’t consider myself skilful or blessed with a particular outstanding attribute. I know my limitations and would always consider the best part of my game was that I worked extremely hard and would run myself into the ground.
I’ve played with a lot of better players than me growing up but they were more interested in nights out than playing a game the next day. You can’t turn up to a match or training as a professional hungover otherwise there will be serious consequences.
Players will at least be dropped from the team, probably will be fined and, in some cases, the club could fire the player. Some players will always remain an amateur because their mindset is that of an amateur player. They won’t want to make some of the sacrifices a professional has to make.
Being a professional footballer, you constantly have to be aware of what you are doing. I’m always conscious when I go out for a drink of who is watching me. I can’t just go out and have a drink when I want or eat what I want because I know that’s not the behaviour of a professional.
Many athletes don’t become professionals because they want to have their nights out or have a dessert with their meal.