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Exclusive: Forres Mechanics deducted three points for fielding ineligible players and boss Steven MacDonald believes rule should be reviewed

Two 15-year-olds played in the Can-Cans' final game of the 2023-24 season.

Forres Mechanics manager Steven MacDonald.
Forres Mechanics manager Steven MacDonald.

Forres Mechanics have been deducted three points for fielding ineligible players – but manager Steven MacDonald believes the authorities should review the rule which requires players to be 16 to feature in a first-team game.

The Can-Cans have been docked points and fined by the Breedon Highland League’s management committee.

The Moray club listed three 15-year-olds on team lines, two of whom came on as substitutes, in their final game of the season – a 1-0 win against Turriff United at Mosset Park on April 20.

Scottish FA rules prevent players under the age of 16 from appearing in a senior first-team match.

Before that rule was introduced plenty of players were blooded in the Highland League at 15.

As a result of the points deduction Forres drop below Lossiemouth to 15th spot in the final standings for season 2023-24.

Can-Cans boss MacDonald accepts his club breached the rule, but says it was for the right reasons.

He was also keen to absolve Forres secretary Tony Broadhurst of blame.

MacDonald said: “It was sad to be deducted three points and hit with a fine rather than receiving some empathy and education from the league regarding the situation.

“The Highland League has blamed our secretary for this oversight.

“However, he has just completed his first full season in his new role and has done a great job picking up lots of new knowledge and understanding quickly.

“I’m very grateful to him – it’s a hugely varied and demanding role that he puts lots of hours into.

“The Highland League should be looking to help and train these unpaid volunteers properly rather than discourage and punish them.

Can-Cans didn’t deliberately ignore rules

“We did not ignore the rule on purpose. It was the last game of the season and we substituted on two 15-year-old boys for 10 minutes at the end.

“Our whole development and youth pathway at Forres – like many other clubs – is trying to encourage and progress young players with the ultimate aim of advancing them into the first team.

“Forres head of youth Allan Frisken does a fantastic job with the young lads. Several of those young boys train with the first team twice a week even at 15 years old.

“What is the difference between this and playing in a match? Playing men’s football at 14 and 15 certainly seemed to help earlier generations.

Forres manager Steven MacDonald, right.

“Perhaps not getting early experience of men’s football is why it is taking some boys until they’re in their 20s to be properly ready for adult football now.

“Last year two young lads of 15 played for Arsenal (Ethan Nwaneri) in the English Premier League and AC Milan (Francesco Camarda) in Serie A.

“In Northern Ireland, a 13-year-old (Christopher Atherton) came on for Glenavon in their professional men’s football league – so it seems fine in other countries.

“Rather than have a blanket age restriction of 16-plus in Scotland, I think it would be a good idea for the rule to be reviewed and for the young players to be assessed on an individual basis with parental consent.”

‘We treat this with the utmost importance’

MacDonald was keen to stress that player welfare is of paramount importance to Forres.

He added: “Of course, I understand we must look after teenagers’ welfare and we treat this with the utmost importance.

“We substituted on the two 15-year-olds because we felt they were ready for a taste of Highland League football and deserved the opportunity.

“One of them, Ben Davidson, may only be 15, but he is six-foot-three and can look after himself.

“Our head of youth obtained parental permission for both lads to play and the families were delighted to see their boys involved.

“It’s ironic that these boys are deemed to be too young and therefore not ready to play, but then it’s also claimed that they made the difference for us winning on the day.”

On a wider point, MacDonald believes the administration systems within football could be improved to ensure clubs don’t fall foul of the rules.

He said: “The Highland League handbook is obviously required, but it is wordy and complicated to read.

“I suggest it would be much simpler and more helpful to issue clubs with a basic tick-box rules sheet to check before every match.

“Let’s also hope that technology and the new online SFA comet software system helps reject players on input who aren’t authorised to play for whatever reason.

“Hopefully then the days of secretaries having to lodge archaic manual submissions, relying on them to check and know every rule backwards, are left in the past.”

League has its say

In response, Highland League secretary John Campbell said: “The comments are disappointing in that all member clubs in the Highland League sign up to and agree to a constitution of rules prior to the start of each season.

“It is the member clubs who write and review the rules on a regular basis.

“The league takes every opportunity to go through all rules with clubs and even put on events alongside other bodies like the Scottish FA to educate all parties.

“We have a session with the SFA taking place on July 8 and it’s up to each club to ensure they have the key folk in attendance and engaging with that.

“In Scottish football we have a responsibility to ensure nobody under the age of 16 is used in an adult fixture.

Highland League secretary John Campbell.

“The Highland League under the direction of Graham Wilson (assistant secretary) has an exceptional youth programme which offers competitive league fixtures for under-16s and under-18s.

“The guidance about what clubs can and can’t do is clearly outlined and all clubs sign up through the licensing process to comply with the legislation.

“The rules and constitution of the Highland League are clear and accessible, and if anyone is in doubt, they can contact myself and Graham any time for clarity.

“Given that the rules were breached, the league management committee had no alternative but to hand out a punishment appropriate to the breach.

“What we need to be clear on is that the Highland League takes the protection of children and child welfare very seriously.”