THERE may be two Scottish Cup semi-finals this weekend including an Old Firm encounter, but for the supporters of Buckie Thistle the big event won’t even see a ball kicked.
For their immediate fate – a chance to be champions or else condemned to not win the title – will be decided tonight at a meeting of the Scottish Highland Football League.
The extraordinary situation all hangs on the meaning of the rules on ineligible players. For on the bench for Buckie against Fortmartine United at the weekend was Callum Murray, a player they loaned to Deveronvale earlier in the season.
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Problem is that the rules state that a player registered by a Highland League club after March 31 cannot play for that club until the following season – to stop clubs drafting in players to help them at the last minute.
The penalty for involving such a player in a match is a fine of up to £500 and/or the loss of three points.
The point that Buckie earned against Fortmartine United was crucial as it means they only have to win at home against bottom club Strathspey Thistle on Saturday to win the Highland League championship – that’s Strathspey who have lost their last 11 games.
Three points will put Buckie one ahead of current league leaders Brora Rangers who have completed their 34 matches.
Buckie are also 11 goals better off in terms of goal difference over the only other contenders, third-placed Cove Rangers who are equal with them on points. Cove are playing their matches away from home while a new stadium is being prepared, and must go to Keith to play 12th placed Lossiemouth.
It all looks good for Buckie, then, apart from that pesky allegation of breaking the eligibility rules.
Thistle’s point, as I understand it, is that Murray was already registered with them at the start of the season and was only loaned out, meaning that he didn’t need to re-register when he was recalled to Victoria Park.
Justice would dictate that if Buckie are right then no penalty should be incurred, but if Thistle are wrong, even then the League should take note of the fact that Murray didn’t actually play, far less score a goal, and common sense would say a slap on the wrist or a fine would suffice. Ironically, Buckie Thistle have themselves been the beneficiary of the eligibility rules. It happened in January 2011 when they were beaten 1-0 by East Stirlingshire in the Scottish Cup fourth round, only for ‘Shire keeper Michael Andrews – on loan from Falkirk - to be declared ineligible afterwards because documentation about his loan extension hadn’t reached the SFA office at Hampden in time.
Buckie, who were then the reigning Highland League champions, were reinstated in the Cup and were rewarded with a sell-out crowd for a fifth round tie against Brechin City even if they did lose 2-0.
You would have thought that Buckie Thistle of all clubs would have been up to speed on the eligibility rules, and maybe, just maybe, their interpretation is correct. We’ll find out tonight.