New Scottish football club The Rangers (established 2012) is currently subject to a “transfer ban”, or more correctly a ban on registering new players. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped them from lining up new recruits for a crack at next season’s Scottish second division. How can that be?
I’m not going to go through the tortuous history that resulted in Scotland’s newest club joining the third division last summer again here. Let’s just start here from the fact that a number of conditions were accepted by the club, including a ban on registering any new players between 1st September 2012 and 31st August 2013.
The timing of the ban meant that players could be registered before the start of the current season. But, as the summer window during which clubs can complete transfers runs until the end of August 2013, no new players can now be bought and registered by The Rangers until the window opens again in January 2014.
Or can they?
We know from the media that current Kilmarnock goalkeeper Cammy Bell and Dundee United striker/ centre half Jon Daly wish to join The Rangers next season. Now let’s for the moment ignore the question of why two SPL players would see dropping down to the third tier of Scottish football as a good career move. Let’s just look at the contractual position. Both players’ contracts with their current clubs run out over the summer. So Bell and Daly will become free agents meaning that they can sign new contracts with any club at any time – even outside the transfer window.
Now it is important to recognise the difference here between signing a contract of employment with a football club and being registered to play football.
The Rangers can offer employment contracts to anyone they want, be they grounds staff, administrators or footballers. But what they cannot do before 1 September 2013 is register any of their new employees to play football.
Why then employ footballers who cannot play football? (No Kirk Broadfoot jokes please!) Well, you would be taking a chance if you did not sign up these free agents that they would be offered contracts by other clubs – ones who could actually register them immediately as football players. You would be hoping that the players would refuse these offers and sit out the first month of the new season, waiting for the time when The Rangers was in a position to register new players once more.
But there is a way around this it seems. Because there is apparently no ban on The Rangers playing prospective new signings as trialists.
A trialist is, as the name suggests, someone on a trial who is not registered to play for your club. He a player you want to have a close look at, assess in a match situation and then decide whether or not to offer him a contract. It’s a common occurrence in the lower leagues to see the name Tralist on team sheets.
But can someone you have already agreed a contract of employment with be played as a Tralist? How can it be deemed a trial when you have already made the decision to employ the player? And can a player be played as a Tralist where there is a ban that stops him from becoming a registered player?
It seems as if there is nothing in the rules of the Scottish Football League to prevent this from happening. Morally it may be entirely wrong, but by the letter of the law there is nothing to stop it.
There is however a limit on the number of trialists who can be played in a game. SFL Rule 122 states that:
“No more than two Trialists from any grade of football may be allowed to play, or be listed as a substitute for any club in any Championship match up to and including 31st March in any season.”
So The Rangers cannot field an entire team of trialists. Just as well: the team sheet would get very confusing for a start.
And Rule 122.1 sets another condition:
“Each Trialist may be allowed to play in, or be listed as a substitute for, a maximum of three games for any one club”
Now, note that this doesn’t specify three league games, just three games. But given that the parent rule specifies Championship (i.e. league) matches, I have a feeling that’s how it would be interpreted.
How many league games did The Rangers play before 1 September this season? Three.
So it would appear that Bell and Daly could be played as trialists for the opening three league fixtures and then registered as players, meaning that they could play in every league game next season.
The early part of the football calendar in the lower leagues includes matches in cup competitions, which operate under their own rules. A quick look at these shows that trialists cannot take part in Scottish League Cup matches. Rule 8 states that:
“Players taking part in the Competition must be registered in terms of Scottish Football League Rules or Scottish Premier League Rules as appropriate”
This means that the two unregistered players will miss out on the first round of next season’s competition – and possibly the second round too, should their new team mates make it that far.
The other competition that kicks off early in the season is the Scottish Football League Challenge Cup, otherwise known as the Ramsdens Cup, a competition that excludes SPL clubs to give the smaller teams a chance at glory. The rules of this competition dealing with trialists are interesting. Rule 8.3 states that:
“In the First Round only, each Club shall be entitled to play, or list as a named substitute, up to a maximum of two trialists, despite the trialists not being registered in terms of Scottish Football League Rules provided the trialists are otherwise eligible to do so.”
So can Bell and Daly play in the first round? My reading of this rule would be that they are not eligible to be registered, as their club cannot register any players, so therefore no. This means that the new players could miss out on the first round, and again on the second round should The Rangers win its first tie.
But then it could also be argued that the players themselves are eligible for registration. The rule doesn’t mention bans imposed on the club. And it is on such technicalities that lawyers get rich.
So it appears that a “transfer ban” isn’t quite what it seems. The Rangers will be able to circumvent its terms by playing Cammy Bell and Jon Daly as trialists in three league matches, although they will miss out on at least some cup games.
It appears that no consideration to this scenario was given by the footballing authorities last summer when the registration ban was agreed. But then those who run the game in Scotland are not exactly known for foresight and effective administration, are they?