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Offensive and unjustified

The pitch invasion which marred the end of this year’s cup final could have far-reaching consequences for the Scottish game, consequences which supporters do not deserve


This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

There are certain moments seared into the collective consciousness of the Scottish football fan: Archie Gemmill’s mesmeric run and goal against the Dutch at the 1978 World Cup; Jim Baxter’s keepy-uppies when Scotland defeated the Auld Enemy – and then world champions – in 1967 or James McFadden’s long-range screamer against France at the Parc des Princes in 2007.

Another indelible image to add to the list is that of members of the Tartan Army balancing on the crossbar at Wembley following Scotland’s famous 1977 victory over England in the British Home Championship.

Among the apologists for the ugly scenes which marred the end of this year’s Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Hibs were those who likened the pitch invasion at full time to the jubilation shown by those Scottish fans nearly 40 years ago.

To make that comparison, however, is to underplay the seriousness of the trouble which took the sheen off Hibs’ historic victory – just as it is unfair to suggest what happened is in any way similar to the 1980 Hampden riot, where groups of Rangers and Celtic fans fought running battles as the police attempted to restore order.

But just as the 1977 pitch invasion acted as a precursor for the dark days of the 1980s, when hooliganism was on the rise and fans were treated with contempt by the authorities, so too could this year’s cup final come to mark a defining chapter in the history of our national game.

As a young football fan in the 1980s, I remember being transfixed by the entirely odd – and short-lived – spectacle of the Rous Cup. A successor to the Home Championship, the Rous Cup ran from 1985 to 1989 and latterly became a mini league comprising England, Scotland and a South American nation. Brazil, Colombia and Chile all took part before the annual fixture was consigned to history against a backdrop of hooliganism and the Hillsborough tragedy. England and Scotland would not meet again until Euro ‘96.

While Scottish football in 2016 is light years from the controversies of the 1980s, supporters are once again beginning to feel victimised. Much of that anger is a direct result of the Scottish Government’s Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act, which came into force in March 2012.

This much-maligned piece of legislation grew out of the reaction to the Old Firm “shame game” of 2011 when three Rangers players were sent off and police made more than 30 arrests within the confines of Celtic Park. There was also the infamous touchline bust-up between managers Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon.

There is undoubtedly a bigger issue about the effect Old Firm games have on crime levels, with the associated spike in domestic violence incidents being particularly shameful. But those are not the sort of incidents the Offensive Behaviour Act was brought in to deal with.

The Act applies to incidents “at, on the way to or from” matches, as well as anywhere a game is being broadcast (with the exception of private homes). Keen to be seen to do something following the 2011 “shame game”, the SNP government hurriedly introduced the legislation, now widely regarded as a knee-jerk reaction.

It is fair to say the Act has not been short of critics. Sir Tom Devine, one of Scotland’s most eminent historians, described it as the “most illiberal and counterproductive” ever passed by the Scottish Parliament. Stuart Waiton, an academic at Abertay University in Dundee, calls the Act the “logical development” of the “intolerant times” in which we live. “Speech crimes are becoming the norm in a culture which encourages a thin-skinned, chronically offended and anti-social individual to flourish,” he says.

“The problem is not this one bill, it’s all the other laws that have undermined basic liberal principles of free speech based on politically correct ideas that appear progressive but replace politics and arguments with policing and prison.”

Moves are now under way to have the legislation repealed at Holyrood; a very real possibility after the nationalists lost their majority at May’s election. But an even bigger development, which could have far-reaching implications for the national game, could soon be on the way.

Following the trouble at May’s cup final, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson once again raised the possibility of Scotland adopting so-called “strict liability”. The Scottish Government minister has left Scotland’s clubs under no illusion: kick violence and disorder out of the game or have strict liability imposed on you.

Already used in European competition, strict liability can see clubs fined, docked points or forced to play games behind closed doors as a punishment for the behaviour of their fans. Both Celtic and Rangers have fallen foul of this legislation in recent years while playing in the Champions League and Europa League.

Regardless of what happens to the Offensive Behaviour Act and to strict liability, Scottish football appears to be at a bit of a crossroads. Indeed, a report by Sheriff Principal Edward Bowen into the trouble at the cup final has called for the Scottish Government to consider making it an offence to run onto a football pitch.

No-one wants to see a repeat of the scenes which marred Hibs’ first Scottish Cup win in 114 years, but legislating for trouble hasn’t worked. Strict liability may be one answer, but another is to treat fans with the respect they deserve.

The overwhelming majority of Scottish football supporters follow their team in a peaceful and law-abiding fashion. While bringing back alcohol at matches is probably a step too far, initiatives such as the introduction of safe standing at Celtic Park are vital for improving the lot of supporters left feeling increasingly disenfranchised from the running of the national game.

If as much attention had been paid to issues such as ticket prices and fan ownership as it has to criminalising supporters over the past few years, the average Scottish football fan would be revelling in the here and now, not just constantly re-living glories of the past

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

Issue 32
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