It was hardly a leap of faith to have envisioned sighs of relief in Scottish football’s high offices this month as chaos reigned at – somewhat poetically – St Andrew’s. Suddenly the patron saint of fan disorder was not a Scottish resident.
Until this season – aside from the odd exception – the biggest embarrassment attached to supporter behaviour in Scotland related to sectarian chanting. Although not exclusive to them, this is the recurring domain of the Old Firm; anti-catholic verse and pro-IRA singing form a depressing backdrop when Rangers and Celtic play away fixtures at Kilmarnock or Hamilton, let alone against each other. That so many of those belting out antiquated anthems could not make a distinction between Derry’s Walls and Niagara Falls adds to the lunacy. They point fingers at each other as the problem persists; clubs themselves are woefully quiet on the matter.
There is a legitimate notion that singing, if completely misrepresentative of Scotland the country, pales into insignificance when the safety of players or attendees is a serious concern. Nonetheless the febrile atmosphere at high-profile Scottish fixtures surely in part fuels physical confrontation.
Hibernian made headlines twice within six days this month when a bottle was launched at Celtic’s Scott Sinclair and the Rangers captain, James Tavernier, was accosted by a punter on the pitch at Easter Road. Curiously the Hibs chief executive, Leeann Dempster, was lauded in some quarters for strong words after the second serious incident; the failure to prevent it happening has been ignored. This is merely symptomatic of a lame football governance structure.
In recent months Scottish fixtures have been dogged by violent behaviour – seat throwing, coin throwing, key throwing and on one occasion punch throwing towards a player from a front row seat. Fraser Wishart, chief executive of PFA Scotland, quite rightly insisted “it is clear that the current processes in place are not working” with regards to the safety of his membership. He is whistling in the wind.
The Scottish government, rightly uneasy with a scenario which paints its generally welcoming and safe society in a disproportionately wild light, has threatened intervention if football clubs do not get their collective house in order. Said clubs met on Monday, where self-preservation was the clear agenda.
“It’s not about punishing the clubs or punishing the people who are involved at the clubs; it’s about punishing people who actually do it,” insisted the Motherwell chief executive, Alan Burrows, even before the meeting. “The only way to properly stop it is to go after the individuals strongly.”
The undertone to the comments of Burrows – who is one of the more broad-thinking individuals in the game – relates to the avoidance of any implementation of strict liability, where clubs can be penalised for the antics of their supporters. The refusal of Scotland’s main clubs to countenance a policy as implemented, for example, in England is laughable. “Not our problem, it’s one of society” barely masks fear regarding escalating penalties because Scotland’s leading lights have neither the inclination nor ability to treat wayward fans.
Thousands of people standing in petrol pump queues do not belt out “No Pope of Rome”. Football should tackle this disease, not cower from it on the basis of it falling under someone else’s domain.
Useful idiots are thrown in front of microphones to peddle the line of why clubs cannot possibly pay the price for the antics of their “family” (a term applicable only for good news stories). And this at a time when monitoring who attends football matches has never been more simple.
Excuse after excuse, normally alongside extreme examples, is peddled out as to why clubs should escape scot-free for what transpires in the stands. In a recent classic of the genre, a national newspaper column dismissed strict liability and the author failed to declare his long-time directorship of Celtic.
The Scottish Professional Football League deducted four points from the League Two club Clyde this month – and added a fine for good measure – after the fielding of an ineligible player. How can this be deemed more serious than endangering the safety of footballers?
Yet, in Scottish football’s vernacular, that is precisely the case. The Scottish FA appointed a chief executive, Ian Maxwell, on the basis of existing close relationships with clubs. Perhaps it needs more of an outsider to break the mould regarding bigotry or violence.
Punishment aside, there are not even incentives for clubs to rid the game of this stench. And what can be said for certain, even by those opposed to strict liability, is that the status quo is ineffectual. Security around top-flight Scottish games is glaringly inadequate.
In the aftermath of Monday’s meeting the SPFL frittered out a statement of risible inadequacy if found at all. “There was a strong consensus in condemning such behaviour and the individuals who commit criminal acts at football grounds,” the statement read. “The SPFL will continue to engage with key stakeholders to help tackle all criminality occurring at SPFL stadia.” And that, unsurprisingly and wholly unsatisfactorily, was it.
An unfortunate reality is that most members of the Scottish media gave up writing about sectarian singing under the realisation the authorities had no appetite to deal with it. The first two Old Firm games of the season featured chanting that would be banned by any sane set of football administrators yet this was unreported and duly ignored. Steve Clarke, the Kilmarnock manager, adopted a different approach when calling out “dark age” bigotry towards him at Ibrox in February. What followed, depressingly, was an episode of counter-blame; Clarke has currency in England, meaning his anger resonated widely.
After the international break Celtic host Rangers in a game hardly noted for friendliness. If that is to be accepted, the same does not apply to rising lawlessness by those who think a £25 ticket gives freedom to act like a degenerate. Pubs lose licences for a series of mass brawls; Scotland’s football clubs have no interest in taking responsibility for rogue supporters. It is a weird business.