THE arrival of professionalism in the Scottish Building Society SWPL1 has had unforeseen and unfortunate consequences for two clubs and three of their players. Some clubs in SWPL2 have also been affected, although not to the same extent.

In what appears to be a complete abandonment of common sense, the Home Office updated their Tier 4 visa regulations early last year. These now effectively stop a student from outwith the European Union playing in a league which has even one professional player. Incredibly, it seems such a student is deemed to be a professional sportsperson, even when she is not being paid to play.

Haley Kern, an American who studies art in Dundee, played for Forfar Farmington last season and fully expected to do so again this year. The Angus club registered a second student from the USA, Anne Metz, over the winter, and she, too, was in their 2020 squad.

The other SWPL1 club affected is Spartans. They signed a third American who is studying in Scotland, Krissie Williams. She has also been barred from playing in league, League Cup and Scottish Cup games.

Spartans head coach Debbi McCulloch takes up the story. “We went to the 2020 season kick-off meeting at Hampden and were told about this legislation, which was the first time anyone had heard of it. This was two weeks before the League Cup was due to start.

“It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do as a coach – tell a player who wants to play for this club, and who had committed to a full pre-season, that she might not be able to. I’ve seen how much it has affected Krissie. She’s heartbroken.”

Nicola McBride, Forfar’s club development officer, reports that Kern and Metz were “devastated” when told they would also be unable to play in any of the competitions this season.

While it is the Home Office who decide on the visa regulations, it is the job of the Scottish FA’s registration department to ensure there is an awareness of them. It is understood that Scottish Women’s Football, like their member clubs, were not informed of the updated regulations until late January either. The SFA has given no explanation as to why the information was not shared until the cusp of the new season.

Some clubs in SWPL2 have been affected also, but because it is deemed to be a “wholly amateur league” the visa restrictions do not apply. Overseas students from outwith the EU can play in second tier league games – but not the League Cup or Scottish Cup.

Had Stirling University not been relegated from SWPL1 in November their predicament would have been the worst of any club in Scotland. Head coach Craig Beveridge confirmed that five players would have fallen foul of the Home Office regulations. They can play in SWPL2, but not the cup competitions.

A club which could be affected in a different way is Hearts. Their partnership with Edinburgh Napier University included the possibility of bringing non-EU players to Scotland on student scholarships. The entire mess could, perhaps, get even worse depending on how the UK departs the EU. But in the meantime, three American students have been deprived of the opportunity to play the game they love, at the level most appropriate to their abilities, by government officials in London.

The clubs most affected have been pushing for a meeting with the SFA and SWF, with McCulloch saying: “We need to do everything we can to try and find a positive outcome for these players. I don’t feel enough has been done.”

The meeting McCulloch, McBride and others have sought could happen this week. But given the fact that the regulations emanate from the Home Office, and that some sports in England have already been adversely impacted, the prospects don’t look good.

IN a twist of fate, Spartans will reach the quarter-finals of the League Cup provided they don’t lose to the newly professional Celtic side at Ainslie Park today. The home side have six points from two Group A games, while Celtic have four.

Regardless of the outcome, it is set to be a landmark season for McCulloch, whose 200th game as Spartans head coach should be reached later this year. Goalkeeper Rachel Harrison is also likely to become the first player to reach a double century of appearances.

“I’ve been here for eleven years,” McCulloch, who doubles up as business and operations manager of Spartans’ community football academy, said. “It’s my dream job because I’ve always wanted to help people, whether it’s on the pitch or off it.”