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Forres Mechanics manager Steven MacDonald makes appeal to Highland League after Mosset Park club is deducted three points for fielding 15-year-olds in first team match

By Craig Christie

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Forres Mechanics manager Steven MacDonald believes it’s time to review Scottish football rules preventing under-16s from playing senior football.

Forres Mechanics' manager Steven MacDonald...Picture: Daniel Forsyth..
Forres Mechanics' manager Steven MacDonald...Picture: Daniel Forsyth..

Cans were hit by a three-point deduction from last season’s total for listing three 15-year-olds in their squad for the final match against Turriff United on April 20.

Two of the players came on as substitutes as Mechanics won 1-0 to finish the campaign with two victories.

The Highland League issued the penalty to Forres, insisting the rules were clear on age limits, a statement which MacDonald denied as he said the ruling was buried deep in the league handbook and written in confusing language.

He defended club secretary Tony Broadhurst, who is in his first year on the Mechanics’ committee, saying Highland League office bearers deserve to be supported by the league for the work they do rather than be criticised.

MacDonald said his youth players deserved the opportunity to play at first team football, and their parents were happy for their sons to play in adult football.

But he also said that Forres were one of several Highland League clubs left with decimated player squads due to a glut of games in the closing weeks of the season.

The Cans’ boss appealed to the league to have more dialogue with clubs in an effort to find the best way ahead for young players trying to break into senior football.

“Going into the last game of the season, we had three 15-year-old boys who deserved to get the chance to be involved with the Forres first team,” he said. “We were led to believe that after receiving parental consent, we could list the three boys as substitutes.

“The three young lads have been training with us for some time, probably the same as with most other semi-professional clubs. Is it that much different to playing in a Highland League game when you are physically involved in training matches and mixing with these adults in competitive routines at training?”

MacDonald feels existing youth leagues provide a solid stepping stone for young players but are not enough to get them ready for men’s football.

“The Highland League secretary John Campbell rightly says we have a great under-16 and under-18's league programme but what we should also realise is this alone is often not enough to prepare boys for adult football. A lot of them are then lost from the game after they are too old for under 18 football, because they are not ready to step up to the first team.

“Perhaps it would be an idea to look at every case individually. If clubs think the youngster is developed enough and their parents are happy to give consent that they are ready to play adult football, is that enough?

“Should Scotland really make an age restriction on this when many other major countries don't (including England). Of course, there will always be injuries but that is true for much older players too, given the contact nature of the sport.”

The Forres manager stressed that his three young additions were given their place on merit, although an opportunity was created by an injury list created by the league’s backlog of matches.

“The erratic Highland League fixture list, and the season being extended meant several teams were playing three or in Buckie Thistle's case, even four matches in a week. To me, that seems as much of a risk to health and safety as playing adult football at 15 years old.”

MacDonald read comments from league secretary John Campbell in relation to the sanctions, saying the guidance on age restrictions was clearly outlined to clubs.

“It was a pretty standard response from the Highland League - ‘They take every opportunity to go through the rules with clubs and the rules are clear and accessible for all clubs to see’ - in my experience as a manager, I'm not sure I agree with that,” MacDonald added.

“If they were so clear, then why do we see so many instances of teams being punished for not complying with the rules.

“I’ve never been issued with a Highland League handbook so I must admit I'd not read it. Since this incident, I managed to track one down. I sat down with it for ten minutes and I think it’s fair to say it’s hardly an easy read and quite wordy.

“When I couldn't find anything about age restrictions for players, I went back to the contents section, looking for a section titled ‘Players’ eligibility’. There is no such thing of course. Eventually after a long search I found the ruling. It’s on page 31 under a section called ‘The Membership of the League’, pages 26-31.

“The rule states: ‘to be eligible to play in matches, other than age specified YDI matches, held under the auspices of the League a player must have attained the age of 16 years and if from outwith Scotland have obtained an International Transfer Certificate’.

“What does international clearance have to do with being 16 to be eligible to play in matches?

“The first thing I thought was this rule was meant for a 16-year-old coming from abroad. International clearance should be under a different sub heading and a different rule number. It's not very clearly written.

“There are so many rules now and it feels like there's almost a new one every month. We should be supporting club secretaries as much as possible, not putting more pressure on them, especially when they are new into the role like at Forres.

“I don't think you can take it for granted that clubs are going to know every rule just because they sign up to a constitution. It would be nice to see some empathy given sometimes, rather than just docking teams points and fining them when they are trying their best.”

MacDonald would like to be part of discussions between the footballing authorities and clubs to determine when young players are ready to play at first team level.

“You could go into a debate about when kids bodies are ready for adult sport and go into all sorts of different tangents - things like maturity, ages, size, strength, sports science etc.

“It's hard to know who is right and wrong about the body and when it is physically mature enough to cope with this stuff. All I know is that the three 15-year-old boys we included in our squad for the last game of the season were ready and weren't at any more risk than they would have been in our training.

“They have been mature enough to cope with training with us for the last two years. They absolutely thrived being involved with the first team in a proper match too.

“It would be nice to think we can all learn from situations like this and try to improve things for the future. Unfortunately, we also know that is unlikely to happen.”

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