Where the Exemptions Panel may become a key selling point for us to foreign players is that some of them might want to play in England and we can be the vehicle to get there. That certainly seems to be an attraction from speaking to agents and some of those guys don’t know at the moment that the rule is in place. They ask a question and some are surprised when we give them the answers.
Exemptions education story
Scottish clubs have long relied on the Exemptions Panel to obtain work permits for overseas players who did not meet the criteria of the points-based system.
Facing abolition at the end of 2021 following the UK’s exit from the European Union, the Scottish Professional Football League’s successful lobbying of the UK government means the Panel is now permanent, providing a considerable boost to recruitment teams at clubs across the country.
It’s perhaps not a story that has been told widely enough across the continent.
But Nick Daws is doing his bit to spread the message.
The Head of Recruitment Operations at SPFL side Motherwell FC spent two days at the TransferRoom Madrid Summit in March locked in talks with a selection of Trusted Agents from across Europe to educate them on the rules as he continues to build a competitive squad.
Daws tells TransferRoom: “The Exemptions Panel we have in Scotland means we can recruit from outside the UK and that was an important part of the TransferRoom Summit. The real benefit for me was that agent networking - the more contacts we can build with agents outside of the UK is a key aspect of our business.”
Last summer Motherwell FC brought Norwegian defender Sondre Johansen from Mjøndalen IF, Finland international Juhani Ojala from Vejle BoldKlub in Denmark and American forward Joseph Efford from Waasland-Beveren in Belgium.
A club’s ability to be creative in the transfer market with a limited budget would have been seriously hit had the panel been dissolved.
Daws continues: “The challenge we have with a club with our budget is that we are competing with teams in England, in the Championship and League One, but they are probably unlikely to recruit from outside the UK.
“So what the Exemption Panel does is enable us to be smarter in recruitment and open the market up to more players, for instance the three players we brought in, a Norwegian, a Finn and an American, all within our budget.”
Motherwell FC are finding value in the Nordic market, like Finnish defender Juhani Ojala
That trio of summer 2021 signings (there were 12 in total) are indicative of where Daws and Motherwell see value in the coming transfer markets.
“When you look at bringing players in from abroad, there are various things to consider: the settling in period; are they a good fit culturally, on the football side, physically, mentality-wise? For us in Scotland, it is probably easier to think of traditional Scandinavian players or the US market, potentially,” says Daws.
“That is easier for us than going to some more unknown markets, but that is where TransferRoom is great. You get a really wide network of contacts from clubs all over, and you are sharing real time information. There is always a player that is an outlier, who doesn’t fit the perceived profile of a league or country, and therefore could be a good fit for us at Motherwell.
“For example, a German agent told me that the system in the Bundesliga is set up for players to stay in Germany, but is there a third-tier player in Germany who the system doesn’t recognise as having that pathway? Maybe he could come to Scotland and then end up in England. Or skip that route and just go back to Germany in a few year’s time. Motherwell are looking to provide that pathway and these contacts I’m making, whether at the Summit or on the platform, are helping that process.”
A route to the Premier League?
Failure to retain the Exemptions Panel would have had “disastrous financial consequences” for the Scottish game, according to Neil Doncaster, CEO of the SPFL, who added: “It is a hugely significant achievement and protects the interests of many Scottish clubs whose business model depends on the import, development and onward sale of overseas players.”
Motherwell are under no illusions where they sit in the football pyramid, but the work permit regulations can help to position the club as a perfect stepping stone - football-wise and regulatory-wise - to England.
Daws, who has coached at a number of English clubs and is the former Head of Recruitment at AFC Wimbledon, explains: “We don’t tend to be what we’re not. We are fan owned and I imagine we have a bottom four budget. So I know who we’re competing against.
“Brexit has created a really different environment to work in, especially in England, which I’ve worked mostly in. That itself would mean that if we are only able to recruit under the same rules as English clubs, we would find it a really big challenge. Where the Exemptions Panel may become a key selling point for us to foreign players is that some of them might want to play in England and we can be the vehicle to get there.
“That certainly seems to be an attraction from speaking to agents and some of those guys don’t know at the moment that the rule is in place. They ask a question and some are surprised when we give them the answers.”
TransferRoom talks: Motherwell FC's Nick Daws at the Madrid Summit
The imperfect science of squad building
As Daws prepares for his third Transfer Window at the club, he does so safe in the knowledge that things will not be as hectic as the summer of 2021, when 12 players were recruited. Another five arrived in January 2022.
“It has been an extremely complex process,” says Dawes. “This is still a new team… and you will have some bumps in the road putting it together. For us there was a plan in place last summer, but the plan did not necessarily come together.”
Signing a handful of players allows recruitment teams to be a bit more patient and prioritise what position to spend more money on. But when there are so many players to recruit, decisions need to be made fast.
Motherwell’s signing of the 26-year-old goalkeeper Liam Kelly on a permanent deal from Queens Park Rangers last summer was a major coup and the three-year contract protected the club’s investment.
Yet despite a successful six month loan spell at Fir Park in the second half of the 2021-22 season, it was not a straightforward deal to complete.
Daws explains: “Our first priority last summer was to re-sign Liam on a permanent deal from QPR. We thought that would be an easy one, but it was actually the last deal we did and the most difficult one.
“In fact, we thought that the English deals that we were potentially going to do would be easier, and yet it was easier to get two Scandinavians in. A phone call, a zoom, a meeting, and an agreement on the figures and done.
“So much for best-laid plans.”
Main picture credit: Motherwell FC
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