Sixteen-year-old Courtney McDonald suffers from right hemiplegia, which means that she struggles with stiffness in the muscles on the right-hand side of her body, affecting her balance and the flexibility in her ankle and foot joints. It also means that she does not have the strength or stamina of other girls her age.
Due to her disability the Bonnyrigg Rose goalkeeper has been playing with players a year or more younger than she is for several seasons. But, despite granting her special dispensation in the past, the Scottish Women’s Football board members have now withdrawn their support, leaving her frustrated and in limbo and forcing her club and her parents to call for some common sense as they seek a rule change.
“We appealed that and sent them a letter from her physio outlining the limitations of her disability and the fact she can’t play with girls her own age and they discussed it again at their board meeting last week,” said her coach and chairman of Bonnyrigg Rose Community Football (Sports) Club, Jim Wilson. “But we got a short sharp reply saying that because it is more than one year [outwith the qualifying age bracket], albeit by 18 days, that rules are rules. It is ridiculous. I still have the letter showing that Courtney was given dispensation to play in 2014 and, as we see it, the only thing that has changed since 2014 are the members of the Board, who if necessary have the power to make a rule change for the betterment of the girls’ game and could allow her to play until that change is made.
“We have contacted all the clubs in the South East U15’s in our league and we have the support of every one of them, who all know Courtney and have grown up playing against her and have no problems with that, as well as members of the League Management Committee. From dialogue with the SFA we believe we have their support too but they can’t force the SWF, who, in our opinion, are clearly digging their heels in and refusing to listen to reason.
“Because it is a two-year age group they play at, she was within that one-year limit in 2013 and in 2015 and bizarrely she will come back into it next year and if common sense prevailed in 2014, I don’t see why that isn’t the case this year.”
But, having come up against a brick wall and with the youngster’s best interests at heart and keen to ensure no one else is affected in the future, Bonnyrigg Rose have now raised the issue with their SNP MP, Owen Thompson, who has confirmed he will look into the matter, which could be embarrassing for the SWF, whose patron is SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. At a time when the women’s national team is on the verge of qualifying for a major championships for the first time ever, it is unlikely that the sidelining of the young Hibs fan will impress potential sponsors.
According to correspondence from the SWF, who have failed to respond to Scotland on Sunday’s requests for an official comment, they will discuss adding greater discretionary powers at their annual general meeting. But that isn’t scheduled until the end of the year, so unless something is done immediately, McDonald, who was last season’s Players’ Player of the Year, will have to sit out an entire season.
“This had been dragging on and she has already had to miss half the season,” said Wilson. “We were actually in the League Cup final against Hibs three weeks ago and they said they would have no problem with Courtney playing and assured us there would be no protest ‘win, lose, or draw’. But the SWF refuse to listen.
“It has been really difficult because she still comes to training twice a week and every week we tell her to hang in there and that it will be sorted soon but she is desperate to get back playing again.
“What really struck a chord was when we were playing in the semi final of the league cup and it went to penalties and we won and all the kids were on the pitch at the end, so I told her to go out and be part of it. It is a tight-knit group and this is just not right.” According to her mum Heather it is “heartbreaking”. Claiming that football has always been her daughter’s passion, she says the situation has become more than frustrating. It is now infuriating. Rubbishing the SWF suggestion that Courtney move up to U-17, she insists her daughter’s disability, which is a form or cerebral palsy, would render her unable to cope with the heightened physical demands, saying there would even be difficulties associated with using a bigger ball at that age group.
With her brother Ryan wheelchair-bound due to cerebral palsy, football pushes McDonald to stay active and do the stretches she has to do on a regular basis to address her disability. Her mother says the current situation has robbed her daughter of that motivation and makes a mockery of the inclusiveness being promoted by the SFA and the SWF.
“I don’t think the SWF realise the impact of what they are doing,” she said. “She just loves football. Ever since she was a little girl, her and her dad would be out in the garden with a ball, so not being able to play has been so frustrating for her and she doesn’t understand – I don’t think any of us do – why they have made this decision now. She does get down about it and as a parent that is hard to see.”