90 minute populists

In recent months we have seen the scourge of football hooliganism rearing its particularly ugly face again. With a bottle and coins being thrown at players and most recently “fans” invading the playing area in both Scotland and England.

This fall in behaviour comes on the back of the decision to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Grounds Act. I was not a big fan of this law but I would not have called it “mince” or a “stain”. One thing it did highlight though is that we should not create new legislation just because the Police say we should, a rather more serious basis must be required. However, the decision to repeal rather than amend sent out some dangerous messages. It suggested that there was not a problem and anyone who goes to matches regularly, and I’ve been a season ticket holder for about 30 years, knows that there is. Generally, it has been mostly verbal, whether in shouts, songs or chants. But since James Kelly MSP aided and abetted by his Labour comrades, the Tories, Lib Dems and Greens, voted to repeal, the number of incidents where objects are being thrown at players and more recently “fans” coming off the terraces and into the playing area has escalated dramatically! I find it difficult not to link the two.

That the Labour, Tory and LibDems should collude in repealing anything the SNP does comes as no surprise. They exist merely to oppose the SNP nowadays but that the Greens should pander to populism did disappoint, although not surprise, me.

As is so often the case when politicians try to play populist games the results are dangerous for ordinary people. When they pander to the baser instincts of the crowd the results usually take us to a much darker place. The relatively small number of fans who campaigned against the Act because it made it outlawed their offensive behaviour were sent a strong signal that anything goes. The Act could and should have been amended but it’s as bad to repeal law in haste as it is to make law in haste.

Football likes to think that it exists in a bubble of its own where the normal laws do not apply. It doesn’t matter whether they are on economics, where clubs continue to trade year after year losing money, the ridiculous transfer “market” or seriously suggesting the football players should be exempt from freedom of movement laws post Brexit. Now we are supposed to accept throwing a Buckfast bottle or a coin at someone is ok because it happens in a football stadium. Sorry, but offensive behaviour at football grounds is still simply offensive behaviour.

If football clubs cannot or will not control what happens inside their stadiums then there must be consequences. Just like every other place of entertainment. No-one, fan, player or official should have to tolerate abuse which would be unacceptable anywhere else. It doesn’t happen at any other sport or entertainment.

Sadly anyone who goes to football knows that the “crowd control” measures are a bad joke. Expecting part-time, minimum wage “stewards” to take action against a crowd is flying in the face of reality. To give just one example, just after the referendum in 2014 one young lad was huckled out of a ground for displaying a Saltire with “YES” on it. At the other end dozens of Union Flags, some with slogans, were on display and no action was taken by stewards or police. It was ok to tackle one person but not a crowd.

The response of most football officials, pundits and commentators to these recent incidents have been mealy-mouthed. While condemning the offending behaviour, they are willing to blame everyone, fans themselves, police, stewards and Governments, everyone but the clubs themselves! It’s almost as though they do not accept that the only reason the “fans” are there is to support “their” club. One of the few I have heard recognising the link has been former Aberdeen captain Willie Miller.

The case for “Strict Liability” where the clubs are held responsible for what happens inside their ground becomes stronger with every incident. It’s argued that clubs cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of every fan, but if they are happy to take the admission money then they have to accept that responsibility! How can they not accept responsibility when an employee Is subjected to physical assault in the course of their job.

If, every time an object was thrown onto the pitch, the game was abandoned immediately and the offenders club was deemed to have lost 3-0, I strongly suspect that clubs would find that they had a different attitude. If repeated games would be played behind closed doors or the punishment repeated. If it takes drastic action to waken clubs up so be it. But I doubt that it would be needed very often.

On a recent trip to Canada I went along to see Toronto FC play. The contrast was stark. Everywhere there were banners with slogans like “Cheering counts as an assist”, there were lots of stalls selling not only club merchandise but decent food and even beer. Yet the worst chant of the night was “Ref, you suck”. In short, the fans were appreciated, welcomed and treated like responsible adults and valued customers. I also went to see baseball at both Major and Minor League. Again, there was that contrast. At one minor game I was stunned to find that it was “Fans Appreciation Night”. Can you imagine that here? Clubs actually expressing appreciation of their fans?

Meanwhile James Kelly and his supporters have to live with the consequences of their short sighted, short term actions. Maybe there is a lesson there for football in Scotland too. If you treat fans as valued customers, they will respond in kind. If you continue as we are they will do likewise. It’s up to the clubs to put their own homes literally in order.