As floodlit skies are replaced with summer haze, fans and players who invest their heart and soul into Scottish football are taking stock of what has been a typically absorbing 11 months of passion and drama.
This season wasn’t solely about the product on the pitch, though. Attention in the media and government bodies has drifted towards supporters in the stands following a number of high-profile breaches in stadium security. Fans on the pitch, a match official hit by a coin and players having bottles – amongst other items – thrown at them. These incidents throughout an entertaining campaign have moved the sporting headlines to front page news.
When you include the songs heard from supporters, there is further cause for concern amongst lovers of the game. Derogatory chants about religious and social beliefs are clearly heard as part of the wall-to-wall coverage of matches from the SPFL, with players and managers now calling it out as part of their press conferences.
The noise levels continue to grow in our corridors of power in Holyrood as the term ‘strict liability’ is bandied about. Strict liability is seen in some quarters as a deterrent to the perceived rise in police incidents in and around our football grounds. In practice, this would result in clubs being sanctioned for the actions of their fans; these sanctions could range from fines and points deductions to the closure of sections of the stadium. UEFA have a similar system in place already which has seen Scottish clubs pay the price in terms of fines in recent years.
The difficulty with strict liability is that the actions of a few fans will hurt many people who are not involved in the unacceptable conduct. An incident where a coin or pyrotechnic is thrown on the pitch or at a player will normally be down to one individual and, for me, that raises the question: In what fair society should everyone be punished for the actions of one person?
Taking a step back from football for a moment, a practical use of strict liability in government life today could result in sections of our parliaments being closed down due to false expenses claims, because if one member of parliament is making false claims, the practice of strict liability says they are all involved. As an open-minded person, I don’t think for a minute that every elected representative is involved in these actions. The same way I don’t believe in a wider fan base being punished for the actions of a few.
I spoke with a Glasgow lawyer in late 2017 about the government crackdown on fans’ behaviour and, in particular, the OBFA. It was his view that the Scottish Police and courts already had sufficient powers to deal with criminal behaviour where required without OBFA. We have since witnessed the repeal of the act in the Scottish Parliament due to number of factors. However, this has only led to calls for further changes to legislation.
Modern football is driven by sponsorship and media rights. Businesses across the world pay millions to advertise on club shirts and to broadcast matches. These companies may become increasingly concerned that their money is being associated with a product linked to religious hatred or violence.
So what are the options?
* There is a need for some football fans to clean up their act, and to celebrate our victories and cultural links more positively;
* Fans have no place on the football pitch at any time;
* Pyrotechnics, ‘safe’ or otherwise have no place in the stands;
* Players and officials need to be protected and feel safe at all times when they are at their place of work, that is all any one of us would expect when we are doing our job.
There is a rush in some sections of society to deal with football fans differently and to treat us with a heavy hand. It almost seems easier to think we are all up to no good, rather than see us as football fans. On a visit to Tynecastle a few years ago, I went along with my children who were 5 and 10 at the time. My bag was searched three times by police and stewards as I entered the stadium – a few packets of sweets and crisps was all that was in there. In comparison, on a number of trips to rugby, tennis and athletics events, only one bag search was undertaken, and the smiles and demeanour of the police are in sharp contrast to when we visit some football stadiums.
I feel that it’s time for a different, more engaging, approach from our law makers, similar to what we see at the Six Nations or golf championships where videos are shared by police chiefs on social media encouraging attendees to have a great day and stay safe, all met with a smile. It’s definitely time to move away from the trophy-hunting attitude of police, who seem determined to release the fruits of their labour with social media releases such as: “We confiscated 35 litres of alcohol from fans on route to Dens Park today”.
The vast majority of supporters around Scotland respect the stadium rules and are there to support their team. Now is not the time to demonise fans further with new laws specifically for football supporters; now is the time for some alternative thinking and fresh ideas from sponsors, associations and clubs to help market and develop an excellent product on the field here in Scotland.
Martin DonaldsonListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast