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