LONG HAUL GAME

In­side story of the 10-year cam­paign that’s made foot­ball a bet­ter place for Scot­tish kids

Daily Record - - WINNER - gary ral­ston

THE de­ci­sion of JK Rowl­ing to pen her first book in an Ed­in­burgh cafe reads like a short story for Scot­tish foot­ball’s most un­likely rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. As eye-catch­ing ti­tles go, par­lia­men­tary pe­ti­tion PE1319 is hardly up there with Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone. Rowl­ing’s wizard, who came to life over cof­fee in the old town, has made her a multi-mil­lion­aire and sparked a se­ries adored by chil­dren all across the world. Across the cap­i­tal, at a greasy spoon in Chesser, Wil­lie Smith and Scott Robert­son drew up a plot line to a cam­paign for which thou­sands of Scot­tish youth foot­ballers will be for­ever grate­ful. They didn’t know each other back then, but were united in their dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the way kids were be­ing com­mod­i­fied and of­ten ex­ploited by the pro­fes­sional game. Their ob­jectves won wide­spread sup­port among the grass­roots game, with more than 10,000 par­ents and coaches sign­ing an on­line pe­ti­tion that brought them to the at­ten­tion of politi­cians at Holy­rood. Shame­fully, it was an en­tire decade ago when Robert­son’s son Lewis, then aged five, and Smith’s nephew Ross, then 10, were pic­tured in Record Sport as the youngest Scots to hand a pe­ti­tion to the par­lia­ment. Fast for­ward to 2020 and Lewis has just lifted the Scot­tish Cup with his dad’s club, Mus­sel­burgh Wind­sor, while Ross has gone on to en­joy a ca­reer in the ju­nior ranks with Ross­vale.

They have come a long way since 2010 but, thanks to the cam­paign­ing ef­forts of Smith and Robert­son, so too have the rights of un­der-18s in a sport where child wel­fare has not al­ways been a top pri­or­ity.

On Thurs­day, SFA chief ex­ec­u­tive Ian Maxwell told the pow­er­ful Pub­lic Pe­ti­tions Com­mit­tee the SFA were fi­nally ready to lis­ten on is­sues such as com­pen­sa­tion fees for young play­ers and the du­bi­ous prac­tice of three-year con­tracts signed, of­ten un­know­ingly, by kids as young as 13.

Smith, an ev­er­green pen­sioner from Ren­frew and Mus­sel­burgh po­lice of­fi­cer Robert­son, can fi­nally see light at the end of the tun­nel.

Smith said: “Scott and I met in a wee cafe in Ed­in­burgh over a decade ago, in­tro­duced by a mu­tual friend be­cause we were keen to share knowl­edge around build­ing fa­cil­i­ties for our re­spec­tive clubs, Hill­wood

Boys and Mus­sel­burgh Wind­sor. “As we talked, we re­alised we shared a frus­tra­tion around the ex­ploita­tion of kids in the pro youth sys­tem and how it im­pacted on grass­roots clubs like our own. “Slowly but surely the idea for the pe­ti­tion was formed fol­low­ing a sug­ges­tion by former MSP Frank McAveety, but it’s a dis­grace that we’re now the long­est run­ning pe­ti­tion in par­lia­ment his­tory. “That’s largely a re­sult of the de­lay­ing tac­tics of the SFA and SPFL – it once took 18 months to pro­duce an A4 piece of pa­per out­lin­ing a break­down of com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments that had been made be­tween clubs for kids. “But even if it takes an­other five years, I’ll see this through to ben­e­fit ev­ery child in Scot­tish foot­ball.” The duo are as tena­cious as they are pas­sion­ate about a game in which they have a col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of more than 80 years. They have helped mould the ca­reers of the likes of Alex McLeish, Kenny Miller, Owen Coyle, Kenny Burns, Dar­ren Fletcher, Tommy Coyne and Steven Whit­taker.

Robert­son said: “As a po­lice of­fi­cer work­ing shifts, try­ing to raise a fam­ily of four, coach­ing our un­der-16s and be­ing club chair­man, you can bet it crossed my mind at times to walk away from it all.

“I cer­tainly didn’t imag­ine it’d take 10 years to re­solve fairly sim­ple in­jus­tices. It’s been ex­as­per­at­ing at times. Any­one look­ing from the out­side in could see what needed to be done.

“But the last decade has been vin­di­cated by the fact two guys, one from the east and one from the west, who didn’t even know each other be­fore we met in Chesser, have helped play a part in chang­ing the path of Scot­tish foot­ball for­ever.”

When the pe­ti­tion was first raised the SFA didn’t have as much as a player pro­tec­tion of­fi­cer but Robert­son is proud of the changes they have forced over the years.

He added: “It took seven years to change the rule per­mit­ting kids in the club academy sys­tem to also play with their mates in the school team. It should’ve been a no-brainer but was in­dica­tive of the stance of the gov­ern­ing bod­ies and clubs.

“The SFA now have a chil­dren and well­be­ing panel to re­solve dis­putes but it has only been used twice in the last five years, both times find­ing in favour of the player. Play­ers and par­ents must be given greater con­fi­dence to ac­cess the sys­tem.

“We’ve brought to wide­spread at­ten­tion the fail­ure of clubs such as St Mir­ren, Dundee, Stir­ling Al­bion and Queen’s Park to pay na­tional min­i­mum wage.

“Clubs have been dragged kick­ing and scream­ing to com­ply.

“The SFA have now said they will look at tack­ling the is­sue of com­pen­sa­tion paid be­tween clubs for young play­ers. They say only a hand­ful of moves – we’d call them trans­fers – take place each sea­son. There­fore, why bother hav­ing a com­pen­sa­tion sys­tem at all?

“Clubs can still be com­pen­sated for the de­vel­op­ment of young play­ers, but only once they’ve signed their first pro­fes­sional con­tract and not when they are 12 and 13.

“We’re also pleased they’re look­ing at the three-year rolling con­tracts, which cre­ate a com­plete im­bal­ance of power. It’s re­stric­tive, breaches chil­dren’s rights and that’s im­moral and un­fair.”

Smith and Robert­son didn’t like every­thing Maxwell told the Holy­rood com­mit­tee on Thurs­day but they re­spect him as an hon­est bro­ker.

An at­ti­tude change, at the SFA at least, has been wel­comed al­though they’re also be­ing forced to act by the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Rights of the Child, which will be­come en­shrined in Scots law later this year.

Smith said: “There can never be any com­pro­mise on chil­dren’s wel­fare. None. Zero. To be fair, Ian Maxwell’s a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal to Ste­wart Re­gan or Neil Don­caster but we’ll still hold him to ac­count all the way to the end, when the com­mit­tee pro­duces its re­port.

“Leg­is­la­tion may have to be in­tro­duced to force the hand of the SFA and SPFL but they’ve had long enough to get their house in or­der.”

Robert­son added: “We cer­tainly hope 2020 is our year. I want pe­ti­tion PE1319 put to bed and for Scot­tish foot­ball to fi­nally make kids the pri­or­ity in the rules.”

BOYS TO MEN Ross Alexan­der, main, and Lewis Robert­son, be­low, have grown up in the time it has taken to get firm ac­tion on their pe­ti­tion to Holy­rood, in­set

WAIT­ING GAME Ross Alexan­der is with Ju­niors Ross­vale, ten years af­ter help­ing un­cle Wil­lie, far left, and Scott Robert­son, stand­ing cen­tre, present the pe­ti­tion, left

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