A little perspective
When I was a boy I queued outside Celtic Park on a bright August day for a Celtic match against Rangers. The rather inebriated supporter in front of me was told by a Police Officer he couldn’t take a bottle of wine he had into the stadium and that he should put it in the bin beside the turnstile. The chap unscrewed the bottle and drank all of it in two long gulps before throwing the empty bottle in the aforementioned bin and entering the stadium. That scene stuck in my mind all these years and reminded me that the perception of football fans in some corners of society hasn’t altered much since that day long ago.
There has been something of a moral panic in Scottish football after a succession of unsavoury incidents involving supporters of various clubs. Chief among them were the incidents at Easter Road where a bottle narrowly missed Scott Sinclair and then the following week we saw a rather stupid young man run on to the track and kicked the ball away from James Tavernier of Rangers. These incidents and a series of coin throwing occurrences, the most serious of which saw a linesman with a cut head at Livingston, led to the media having a severe attack of hyperbole. No one doubts there has been a spike in poor behaviour from a small minority at Scottish football matches but the reaction from the media and politicians has been over the top.
Football, we are told, needs to sort out this problem or the Scottish Government will have to act. The collapse of the dreadfully crafted and poorly implemented Offensive Behaviour at Football Act demonstrated clearly that Government action has on occasion made situations worse and not better. You can never separate what goes on in football stadiums from the wider society and to imagine that football is a haven for thugs in an otherwise calm society is simply wrong. A look at our city centres when the pubs and clubs close or even some big horse racing meetings will demonstrate that violence and poor behaviour exists well away from football grounds. That is not to excuse it or suggest that it is in any way acceptable but it remains a societal issue and not just a football one.
It may seem unlikely to the middle class hand wringers but behaviour at football matches in Scotland is far better now than it used to be. There was a time when Celtic v Rangers matches would see 200 arrests and degrees of violence in and around the stadium and wider city which today would seem incredible. The drink culture in times past meant far more supporters were drunk at football and many had carry outs with them which left enough ammunition on the terraces for the occasional ‘bottle showers’ I’d see in my youth. In those times some supporters went to the match wearing builders hard hats decorated with club colours to offer some protection as they watched the game.
As early as 1895 there were reports of trouble at Scottish football matches and it remained a feature throughout much of the history of the game. There was serious rioting at a Morton-Celtic league decider in 1922 when locals objected to Celtic fans carrying what the press called ‘Sinn Fein flags.’ Rivets from local ship yards were thrown and fighting spilled onto the field. Of course Celtic Park was closed in the 1940s for a month after serious disorder at a Celtic-Rangers game at Ibrox; this, in spite of the fact that both sets of supporters were involved. The level of disorder at certain football matches in the 1970s and 1980s could be frightening. Rangers supporters caused mayhem in Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Barcelona, Leeds and Birmingham on a scale which would shock modern day politicians. The riot at Villa Park in 1976 saw scores injured and two fans and a Police dog stabbed. One newspaper report said…
‘It is estimated that more than 200 Rangers fans invaded the pitch and running battles broke out on the field with some Villa fans joining the fighting. Two supporters were stabbed during the mayhem. In order to escape the pitch invasion Villa boss Ron Saunders and Rangers counterpart Jock Wallace waved their players back to the dressing rooms and both teams ran towards the tunnel. One witness said: “I have lived here all my life but never have I seen anything like this. They were behaving like wild animals, fighting and running riot all over the place. I was petrified and just didn’t know what to do.”
Of course alcohol played a major part in those events as it would again in Manchester in 2008. When you have thousands of predominantly young men drinking all day there will inevitably be some who behave poorly. Celtic fans had their moments too in that era with the infamous ‘Battle of Turf Moore’ in 1978 springing to mind. 10,000 Celtic supporters headed for Burnley for an Anglo-Scottish cup tie and many had been drinking all day. The violence that night was some of the worst I’ve seen involving Celtic fans. Yes, they were goaded by the usual moronic minority you find in most English clubs support but they responded by going onto the offensive in a pretty brutal manner.
This link between alcohol and trouble at football is a proven one and it is often a major contributing factor. When it was banned from stadiums after the riot at the 1980 cup final there was a calmer atmosphere inside the grounds although certain games still retained the potential for trouble. There was serious disorder in and around Celtic Park when Aberdeen arrived for a cup tie in the mid-1980s for instance and the Glasgow derby still had its usual quota of incidents but the average match was more peaceful. There was still the ‘casual’ culture in which organised groups carried out acts of violence away from stadiums almost as a recreational pastime but it never took root at Celtic although the supporters often had to defend themselves against such groups before and after matches.
The advent of all seater stadiums following the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster was a game changer in terms of behaviour in the stadium itself. Fans who misbehaved were much easier to spot and with most now having season tickets, they risked being banned. That being said, the atmosphere in Celtic Park on the day Rangers won the league there in 1999 was pretty hostile. Again though, the stupid decision to arrange a 6pm kick off time on a Bank Holiday weekend meant a minority of supporters had been drinking too much. The footballing authorities and Police should have told Sky TV that the kick off time wasn’t acceptable but they didn’t and a minority let their passions boil over.
No one is suggesting we accept the coin and bottle throwing we’ve seen of late but a little perspective is required. The Scott Sinclair incident took place in front of a dozen Police and stewards who appeared to be simply standing around watching the game. The Easter Road CCTV was seemingly unable to identify the culprit in a far from full stand. It’s in the interest of all decent fans that the dullards who throw things at football are rooted out but labelling all football supporters as thugs or threatening to close stands and punishing the many for the actions of a few is not on. A degree of self-policing would help too; just as the Celtic support shunned the casuals who attempted to attach themselves to the club in the 1980s, so too fans standing beside those launching things should tell them to give it a rest.
Limited liability has been suggested too as a way forward. Making the home club responsible for all actions which take place in their stadium is a difficult proposition. Those intent on causing trouble will find a way and it’s difficult to see how a club could stop them. Sanctioning clubs for unsavoury songs is another minefield with all the complexity, history and multi-layered identities our fan bases contain. It has been argued that no one was ever injured by a song but they can set the tone in certain games and clearly football clubs would rather the songs their fans sing to be about football.
There has been a gradual evolution in fan behaviour at football matches in Scotland over the decades. The better designed stadiums and the reduction of drunkenness have impacted positively on behaviour at games but in any scenario where thousands of people gather together there will always be a few who don’t know how to behave. Football is a tribal, passionate game which thrives on rivalries and controversy. The challenge is how to keep those more passionate aspects of fan culture while eliminating the less savoury elements. It should never become a sport for the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ as Roy Keane once called the more corporate supporters and I doubt it ever will in Scotland as there remains a rawness and clannish aspect to our game which is being diluted in the ‘tourist leagues’ of England and Europe.
Of course, we all want the bigots and coin tossers to stay away but they are not the norm in our game. Our media and politicians should consider the huge improvements made in supporter behaviour over the years and not use any modern misbehaviour to score petty political points. The vast majority of football supporters are decent and rational people.
There is always room for improvement but we’ve come a long way since the guy in front of me in the queue at Celtic Park drank a bottle of wine in under 30 seconds.