With the January transfer window in full-swing, Scottish clubs will be searching far and wide for the best value deals in a notoriously tricky window and taking advantage of the Scottish Football Association’s (SFA) rules to sign international players which may not be available to English clubs.

While it’s widely accepted that Scottish football cannot compete with the financial power of English football – proven by a succession of takeovers by international billionaires in the Premier League (and below) in the last decade - one area where Scottish Football has held an edge is in the formulation of its rules for international transfers. These rules govern which international players qualify to be granted a visa to play in the UK.

Following changes the English FA introduced to its own rules in the summer of 2023, let’s examine how this advantage could be squeezed in the current transfer window and beyond.

Post-Brexit all international players are required to obtain governing body endorsement (GBE) from the relevant football association - the English FA or Scottish Football Association, before they can obtain an International Sportsperson visa for the UK.

The criteria for a player to obtain GBE rests on a points-based system. The FA and SFA’s GBE rules are broadly similar, with players granted GBE through an ‘Auto Pass’ automatic endorsement based on sufficient national team appearances, obtaining the magic number of 15 points – calculated through a combination of factors including domestic and continental minutes played and league quality (graded in bands from 1-6), or through a specialist exceptions panel for those who don’t meet the first two criteria.

The source of Scottish football’s potential advantage is a subtle but important difference between the FA and SFA’s exceptions panel – i.e. the last-chance saloon for signing players who do not meet the standard criteria. To be eligible for consideration by an exceptions panel, the FA requires a player to obtain between 10-14 points – anything below that and the transfer is highly unlikely to happen.

In contrast, the SFA does not have a threshold for a transfer to progress to the exceptions panel – meaning players who score a very low number of points and who would not normally be available to English clubs - can potentially still be endorsed for a visa and ultimately signed.

Previous transfer windows have given Scottish clubs an edge in signing players from several countries, such as during the 2022/23 season which saw an influx of players from Japanese and Australian leagues (Bands 5-6 under the GBE rules) – those from which most players could not be signed by English clubs due to the more restrictive visa rules.

In the current transfer window the recent signing by St Johnstone of David Keltjens from Israeli side Hapoel Tel Aviv is a potential example of this flexibility being used. While it is impossible to know the exact basis on which Keltjens qualified for endorsement, Israel is a band 6 league and the national team is ranked 75th in the world, suggesting that Keltjens is unlikely to have qualified without passing through the exceptions panel.

This advantage may begin to erode, however, after the FA announced changes to the GBE rules prior to the 2023/24 season. The new rules allow clubs to potentially sign up to four international Elite Significant Contribution (ESC) players. To obtain endorsement as an ESC player, the club must demonstrate the player is an elite talent who will make a significant contribution to the sport. Importantly, ESC players can be endorsed for a visa even where they do not score the 10-14 points required to progress to an exceptions panel.

This significant liberalisation of the rules for English clubs may begin to affect the Scottish game this January and beyond. It is certainly possible that English clubs will now challenge Scottish clubs’ ability to sign players from lower band leagues in Europe and further afield. ESC players are likely to be of a similar profile to those signed by Scottish clubs using the SFA’s more liberal exceptions panel – i.e. players who would previously have been unattainable for English clubs. In particular, English Championship and even League 1 clubs may become a real nuisance for Scottish Premiership clubs trying to make cost-effective signings from leagues in Japan, Australia, North America and smaller European leagues before the transfer window ends.

Scottish clubs have clearly benefitted from the SFA’s GBE requirements in previous transfer windows. While it is too early to assess the impact the introduction of ESC players in England may have on the Scottish transfer market, Scottish clubs will be watching this with interest and debating whether to exert pressure on the Scottish FA to introduce a similar concept.

The final few days of the current window are critical - should Scottish clubs start missing out on key international targets to lower league English clubs, owners will be looking closely at whether the GBE rules are part of the cause. Might the Scottish FA introduce its own ESC concept, or perhaps consider granting more points to players in lower ranked international leagues than the FA in order to create a differential?

As always with possible changes to GBE rules, the SFA would have to balance the benefits a relaxation in the rules might provide in cost-effective signings for its clubs, with the risk of damaging the ever-impressive strength of the Scottish national team by denying home-grown players valuable minutes.

Any changes to the visa endorsement rules which potentially increase the number of international sportsperson visas granted would of course require the agreement of the Home Office before being implemented.

It will be fascinating to see how the remainder of this transfer window plays out, which could have a significant knock-on effect on future windows.

Alex Hood is manager and co-lead of Fragomen’s sports immigration practice. Fragomen is a leading firm dedicated to immigration services worldwide. The firm has more than 5,500 immigration professionals and support staff in more than 60 offices.