INVERNESS Caley Thistle yesterday vowed to take their case to the highest level of Government after Marius Niculae's work permit was rejected.
The SPL club thought they had landed the biggest signing in their history when the Romanian international striker put pen to paper two weeks ago. But the deal was thrown into disarray when it was officially turned down by the Home Office yesterday.
Niculae, at the very least, has no chance of facing Rangers in tomorrow's televised Clydesdale Bank Premier League opener. But the club are now seeking to bring the case before an appeals tribunal at the earliest opportunity to avert further delays and the possible collapse of the entire two-year deal.
Despite Romania having recently joined the EU, the nation has been denied full rights to freedom of labour movement.
With 12 goals from 28 international appearances, Niculae's case looks strong, but he has failed to appear in 75 per cent of his country's games in the last two years.
A panel, featuring some of the Scottish game's highest profile figures, could now be convened to decide on an appeal.
Caley Thistle have enlisted Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart, a former Westminster parliamentary colleague of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, to press the case urgently.
He will argue that Niculae, with a rich career CV at Dinamo Bucharest, Sporting Lisbon, Standard Liege and Mainz in the Bundesliga, is deserving of special dispensation.
Stewart, a keen Caley Thistle supporter and club trustee, confirmed: "I have been approached by the club regarding the situation Marius now finds himself in. When Marius signed for the club, like many fans, I was thrilled - he is a player of stature, experience and talent.
"This is the club's most significant signing yet and shows the clear ambition of Inverness Caley Thistle to progress further up the SPL.
"I have looked at the Home Office conditions which have to be met for the granting of a work permit for a footballer in Marius's circumstances.
"One is that the player's home country must be within the top 70 of FIFA's world rankings. Romania's national team position meets this requirement.
"Another condition is that the player must have played for his country in at least 75 per cent of its competitive full international matches during the two years preceding the application.
"Despite his international record as a player Marius, unfortunately, does not meet this requirement. However, these are only guidelines for an initial application and I'm aware there have been many precedents of even internationally unknown, non-EU players with no links to the UK being granted work permits.
"The application by Marius will now go to appeal and the important thing now is to gather support for the legal team to use at the hearing.
"With this in mind I have today launched an e-petition.
I have also written to Jacqui Smith, a former Westminster colleague and current Home Secretary, calling on her to intervene to support Marius's case."
Contrary to initial talk of resentment or unrest in the Caley Thistle club over Niculae's inflated earnings, it seems he has been warmly welcomed into the tight-knit dressing room.
Manager Charlie Christie revealed: "Marius is mixing in really well with the other players. I was quite honest about the one or two misgivings I had regarding the deal, but those concerns are diminishing quickly.
"He's been very well accepted by the squad and there were instances today during the small games in training when the exchanges between Marius and the lads were side-splitting.
"But more than anything, he looks a player of ability and the lad is getting stronger and stronger. My assistant Donald Park told Marius today that was the sharpest he has looked since coming here."
Stewart's e-petition can be accessed at www.ipetitions.com/petition/mariusniculaeappeal