Joel Lynch: Why this year is the worst ever to be out of contract
Aged 32, capped once by Wales, and with 14 seasons of Football League experience under his belt, you could be forgiven for assuming Joel Lynch would not struggle to find another club after leaving Sunderland at the end of the 2019-20 season.
Lynch joined Sunderland on a one-year contract last summer, turning down a two-year deal in the belief he could help the club to promotion from League One and then negotiate a better deal for the Championship.
But, in a twist of fate literally nobody would have predicted, the League One season was curtailed early due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Sunderland only three points off the automatic promotion places at the time but ultimately missing out on the play-offs on their points-per-game record.
And, with the Black Cats experiencing the same financial pressure as every other club, they decided against offering Lynch another contract, releasing him on a free transfer instead.
Which goes at least some way to explaining why, one afternoon, my scrolling through the usual stuff on LinkedIn was interrupted by a post from Lynch, who had shared a WyScout compilation of his playing highlights.
It was accompanied by just six words: “Free agent left sided centre back.”
It isn’t entirely new to see footballers making their availability known – Michael Owen creating his own dossier to prove he’s not injury prone and Owen Hargreaves releasing fitness videos to show he’s not physically broken spring to mind – but it was nevertheless surprising to see LinkedIn being used like this. How would publicising one’s availability on LinkedIn help secure a new club?
We reached out to Lynch – from a social distance – to find out.
A veteran of well over 300 Football League matches, he is just one of many players the COVID-19 pandemic has created issues for, especially where finding a new club is concerned. Having had offers pulled once the salary cap was introduced by clubs no longer able to allocate the same level of budget they usually would, he is keeping his fitness up by playing for his friend’s non-league side, using their training sessions to keep himself sharp.
“I got a LinkedIn account at first to dig into the business world and have a look at what I might want to do after football,” Lynch says.
“Just to see what was out there and see if there was anyone offering any advice, but the longer I was on it, I was getting other agents messaging me making oﬃcial offers on behalf of other clubs and foreign agents trying to get mandates and stuff.”
It turns out, muddled in among the worldwide pissing contest between wannabe Apprentice candidates, football agents and clubs make genuine, sanctioned, oﬃcial approaches to players using LinkedIn.
“I was a free agent last year and it took a while to get the deal that I wanted, and that was quite a tough situation, so we knew it was going to be hard this summer,” Lynch says.
“Back then though, using LinkedIn was getting me a bit more interest and making more people aware of my availability. I actually had a few oﬃcial club offers on the back of that to play abroad.”
While it might seem like the dream to play abroad for some, with a 15-month old son to care for, it isn’t something at the top of Lynch’s priorities.
“It’s tough because I’ve got a little boy, we’re quite settled and I still feel that I’m good enough to play in England,” he says, “but if the opportunity came where you were offered a ridiculous amount of money then you’d have to do it, even if it’s just for a year or two.
“That said, I still feel like I’ve got unfinished business here and want to finish my career in England to be honest.
“Last season didn’t really go to plan for me. I think I left QPR when perhaps I shouldn’t have, and sadly that had a lot to do with money and their club budget, but then I joined Sunderland who are obviously a massive club.
“I think if I was fully fit I could definitely still play in the Championship and that was the intention joining Sunderland in League One.”
Midway through the season with Sunderland, there was an incident against Portsmouth that left Lynch unconscious, with subsequent knee and rib issues compounding the threat of concussion.
Missing a large chunk of the season, by the time he had regained fitness and was starting to hold his place as a starter down, the campaign was ended on the grounds of public safety. He subsequently became a free agent going into one of the toughest transfers markets imaginable.
“It’s so tough,” he says. “Normally, offers have been coming in while I’m still under contract. This year, clubs aren’t making firm offers to anyone, they’re asking you to come in and train so they can assess you against their budget, sell players and get them out before they bring people in. It’s so much stricter.
“In my position, I know clubs have their transfer targets and budgets, but they’re likely looking for younger players on smaller contracts, rather than an experienced player like myself with Championship and international experience. League One and Two are just really tough because even if someone was asking for £1,000-a-week, they just won’t do that.
“Training without being under contract can create problems. If you’ve got a few clubs interested, if someone sees you go and train somewhere else, they tend to lose interest and just assume you’re joining, which you have no guarantees of, so it limits your options. There’s always the threat of getting injured while training too, with no contract to fall back on.”
The waiting game
The longer the discussion continues around the subject of finding a club this season, the more sense his post on LinkedIn begins to make. And as he tells me, he isn’t the only footballer in this position.
“I’ve got a few close mates who I’ve played with in my career – good, decent players with a lot of experience – they’re in exactly the same boat.
“Everyone seems to be waiting for something to happen or something to change, but there’s just so much uncertainty – with everything – that salary cap introduction has really been massive.
“I know clubs will have been looking and thinking, ‘Yeah, we’ll sign him and work out the financial side of it later,’ which I know a lot of them do, but now they can’t be as fluid with their budget. They need to sell to buy, but with nobody buying, the market is stuck. It’s a waiting game.
“I know I’m not asking for stupid money because I know there is no money in football in League One and League Two, so I’m just trying to have a good end to my career, maybe a two-year deal and go from there.
“The salary cap has come in far too soon, it should’ve been more considered and thought out. It’s a real struggle for the clubs and players. I know a few lads playing non-league and they’re earning more than you can get in League One or League Two, it’s mad.”
While the current situation is hard enough for players like Lynch, a second part of this interview will follow later this week in which the 32-year-old tells us he is “really worried” about how this will affect younger players in football.
By Raj Bains