Right name, wrong country. Though he may have represented Trinidad and Tobago, Jason Scotland must have felt that, thanks to his parentage, a career in the SPL was almost a birthright. He might also have imagined that putting his club into the final of the Scottish Cup, and hence into Europe, counted as a “significant” contribution.
Silly boy. Poor, foolish Dundee United. Did no-one explain that in modern Britain an immigrant’s right to work can be removed at any moment? Did no-one mention that gaining one work permit is no guarantee that you will gain another? Have United forgotten just how parochial the Scottish game can be? Consider the matter of a “significant contribution” to football in Scotland, by Scotland. That was the criterion applied by five former Hibs players and Iain Blair, the SPL’s secretary, last week in deciding whether the player could remain in Britain and in work. On the one hand we had United, so confident of the Trinidadian’s past and future efforts that they were prepared to pay his wages for the next two years. If a better player had been available to the club we can be certain they would have signed him.
On the other hand there were five superannuated Hibees. Let us not question their good faith, but simply record that their former club were dumped out of the Scottish Cup semi-final by a Jason Scotland goal. Let us also add that it seems odd indeed to a layman to see any adjudicating body composed of five people with something of a shared history. Why were Tony Higgins, Pat Stanton, Peter Cormack, Murdo MacLeod and Tommy McIntyre selected for the job when a broader range of opinions might have been desirable?
In any case, someone is surely having a laugh when they apply the word “significant” to the Scottish game. If that is the yardstick, 80% of our native players could be deported without any harm being done to the quality of the football provided. Immigrants are brought here precisely because the quantity of home-grown talent is less than significant. The strategy may ultimately prove counter-productive, but that is another argument. Clubs take on the best players they can find, wherever they can find them.
In recent years, in fact, every Scottish club have hired mercenaries who have proved less than impressive. We can all name them, all the foreigners who failed to “gel”, to “fit in”. They come, they go, but they are not picked on as Scotland has been picked on.
The joke is, indeed, that the player has been excluded not because of his football but because of his hairstyle. To acquire a permit he needed to have appeared in 75% of Trinidad and Tobago’s games. This, as a matter of record, he failed to do, not because his country did not need him, but because his former national coach, Bertille St Clair, objected to dreadlocks. In a game that boasts more absurd bonces than any other industry, one man finds himself unemployed because his erstwhile manager was, by common consent, daft.
At the heart of the row, in any case, is a political issue that should not, with the greatest respect, have been left in the hands of five former Easter Road stalwarts. Had Scotland hailed from anywhere in the European Union there would have been no problem. EU law insists on the free movement of labour within its borders. The British government is obsessed with immigration, however, individuals from outwith the EU are not so lucky.
It doesn’t appear to matter that football is, clearly, a special case, a global industry dependent on the import and export of talent. Nor, we can bet, has it occurred to the Home Office that the Scottish game is in dire straits. The ministry fired off a letter to Scotland so fast last week you might almost suspect it had been written in advance of the hearing.
Meanwhile, Jack McConnell, our own First Minister, has actually been battling to establish a scheme to attract gifted immigrants to Scotland, what with our fast-declining population. Yet here is Scotland being turned away because five formerly “significant” Hibs players – how many caps between them? – decide to apply a crude and stupid rule blindly. United are furious, of course, and who could possibly blame them?
The biggest irony of all is that Scotland is once again an international player. Earlier this year Trinidad and Tobago decided to give St Clair the boot. His successor, Leo Beenhakker, appears to have realised that what the player does with his feet is more important than what he does to his hair. Scotland was actually in Miami, on international duty, when the decision was taken to render him unemployed. Did no-one think to mention this to the appeal panel? Did no-one advise them that the individual’s circumstances had changed?
United, rightly, are to take the matter up with the Home Office. I wish them luck. They may discover, however, that Scotland’s plight is part of a bigger problem, one shaped by official attitudes towards immigration that stray very close to racism. And racism, you may remember, is something we are supposed to be trying to kick out of football. If such is government policy, no-one in the game should have any truck with it. What possible harm would the panel have done if they had simply announced that Jason Scotland is as significant a talent as his club believe?
As it is, Scotland’s loss is truly Scotland’s loss.