Stand up for your rights

The quest for a family-friendly match-day experience is ruining Scottish football for the average fan. No standing, no booze, no pyro often means no atmosphere and no enjoyment. Why are supporters in Scotland treated so differently from those in other countries?

By Martin Stone

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

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There is a consensus that the match day experience is suitably family friendly. There appears to be little to be gained by pushing this agenda any further.
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Vålerenga will be the first Norwegian club to utilise “safe standing” rail seating when their new stadium is opened in 2017.

Since the inception of the SPL in 1998, Scottish football has pursued a relentless agenda of promoting our game as a family-friendly ‘product’. All-seated stadia, legislation to deal specifically with the issues of ‘offensive behaviour’ at matches, special police units dedicated to enforcing this legislation – just some of the initiatives aimed at smoothing off the rough edges of our national sport in the hope of attracting more families through the turnstiles.

Against the backdrop of a downward trajectory in attendances, any attempt to encourage kids to forgo the myriad of alternative pursuits should be applauded.  Securing the next generation of fans is vital to the long-term health of our game. The wee guy dragged along to the fitba – who barely watches the hoof ball played out in front of him and only really cares about the crappy mascots – will hopefully be gripped by the same fervour as so many of us have and be taking our place in years to come.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the strategy has been a qualified success: the numbers of families attending games appears to this observer to have increased dramatically in the past 15 years. However, the continued obsession with honing the match-day experience to the family audience, to the exclusion of all other demographics, is based on a fallacy: the assumption that there are swathes of families waiting to be converted to the cause if only the authorities can make the experience that bit safer, that bit friendlier, that bit more sanitised.

According to a survey of almost 7,000 Scottish football fans carried out in 2012, the need for a more family-friendly environment didn’t register in the top 10 reasons given as barriers to respondents attending more home fixtures. The biggest obstacle was the price of tickets. Other factors included the quality of football on display, the prohibition of standing within the stadiums, poor match atmosphere and the inability to buy alcohol within the stadium.

In fact, when asked about the importance of various elements of the match-day experience, the family-friendly factor was ranked as 7th out of 14. Even more tellingly, respondents felt that clubs were outperforming expectations in the family-friendly stakes, while falling well short in terms of the atmosphere at games, which was rated as the 2nd most important factor.

The results of the survey are conclusive. There is a consensus that the match day experience is suitably family friendly. There appears to be little to be gained by pushing this agenda any further.

And what of those left behind in the wake of the relentless march towards the family-friendly utopia?

The same survey showed that the crowds at Scottish football matches are still overwhelmingly comprised of the traditional lifeblood of the game – blokes aged between 18 and 40, many of whom like a few drinks before the game, who head along to support their team and have a laugh with their mates. You’d expect given the amount of money they pour into the coffers that their opinions would be respected and their support highly valued. You’d be wrong.

These punters are not only being ignored but are increasingly being trampled beneath the family-friendly juggernaut. Over the past few years the following measures have been rolled out by the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and the governing bodies:

l The Scottish Government introduced specific legislation (The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012) to differentiate between “offensive behaviour” carried out at football matches from anywhere else in Scotland. Why football required its own law and what actually constitutes behaviour offensive enough to merit prosecution is another matter.

l Soon after the act was passed a full-time unit was established by Police Scotland to ensure the law was pursued to its fullest extent. The FOCUS unit is made up of 14 specialist officers whose only job is to seek out those guilty of football-related offensive behaviour on match days and on social media.

l In January this year came the latest brainchild of the SPFL: the potential introduction of facial recognition software at Scottish grounds. The theory being that already impoverished clubs would install expensive equipment at the turnstiles to scan the face of every paying customer in a bid to weed out potential troublemakers. Thankfully the idea appears to have been kicked into the long grass with the refusal of the Scottish Government to subsidise the scheme to the tune of £4m. The trouble is that the idea gained any credence in the first place. This is not some dystopian vision of the future, this is Scotland in 2016.

Supporters are now accusing the authorities of being criminalised by them and it’s a notion which is hard to argue with when you look at the draconian measures being inflicted upon us. The detachment between the authorities and a significant number of fans should be sounding alarm bells in the corridors of power. There appears to be a real danger that those fans who follow their teams the length and breadth of the country may decide it just isn’t worth the hassle any more. The game they fell in love with increasingly feels like it’s slipping away, replaced with a pale, sterile imitation.

What I wanted to know was whether our story is unique or are the same feelings of supporter dissatisfaction being echoed in stadiums across Europe? Are our feelings of persecution justified or is the game alienating fans on a wider level?

I decided to have a look at the match-day experiences of fans in European leagues comparable with our own. I needed a yardstick to measure how bad we’ve got it in Scotland. Are other countries able to balance the need to attract more families without marginalising their traditional fan base?

I settled on Denmark, Sweden and Norway as the basis for this case study. All three countries have suffered the same downward trend in attendances over the past decade and are battling to attract fans back through the turnstiles. They are also having the same discussions as us: league reconstruction, the merits of summer versus winter football and the use of artificial surfaces. However, their discussions are taking place against a backdrop of fan engagement and match-day experience light years ahead of our own.

There were three areas in particular which they are getting right which would have a transformative effect on our game if we were able to follow suit:  standing at games, the sale of alcohol inside the stadiums and the use of pyrotechnics.

1. Safe Standing

Standing within Scottish top-flight stadiums has been banned since 1994 in the aftermath of the tragic events at Hillsborough. What I hadn’t realised until recently is that although the recommendations of the Taylor Report, which was released in the aftermath of Hillsborough, are enshrined in English law, the requirement for all-seated stadiums in Scotland was applied on a voluntary basis; there is no requirement for it in Scots law.

In 2011, spurred on by pressure applied by the Celtic Trust, Celtic approached the SPL about the possibility of introducing safe-standing sections, as pioneered in the Bundesliga, to Celtic Park. In an uncharacteristic display of rationality, the SPL conditionally approved the introduction of safe standing in Scotland.

More than five years later, only now is Celtic’s 2,600-capacity innovative seating/standing hybrid section in place. The tortuous process that Celtic had to go through to turn this pioneering proposal into reality says much about the attitude of the powers-that-be towards Scottish clubs and their fans.

In their wisdom, when the SPL made their landmark announcement in 2011 they also slipped in the caveat that the implementation of standing sections would be conditional on approval by local authority safety committees and the police.

Prior to this, Scottish Police Federation chairman Les Gray had set out his stall when he released the following statement to the media: “People have this romantic idea about standing areas. There’s nothing further from the truth, they are dangerous. People go into a standing area because they want to misbehave. They will tell you it’s for the atmosphere but invariably you get a crowd of people who misbehave. If you’re in a seat you are easily identifiable. It starts off with great intentions but even with a small controlled number, it doesn’t work. We have all-seater stadiums for a reason. Standing areas are a nightmare.”

By rights the only involvement from the police should have been in an advisory capacity as part of local authority safety committees. No laws were being broken nor amended. However, their stance was clear: they would object to these proposals at every turn and do everything in their power to obstruct them.

Celtic followed up their initial representations to the SPL with a formal application to Glasgow City Council (GCC) in 2012. This application was finally approved in June 2015 following a gruelling process which included two rejections of the proposal. The process required Celtic to commission numerous feasibility studies, the preparation of an independent study by a subject matter expert and a massive amount of administrative work. The process is estimated to have cost Celtic in excess of £100k.

The basis for the two rejections by the GCC Safety Advisory Group (SAG) and the justification for delaying the approval by three years are poorly documented. What is clear is that Police Scotland was able to exert an inordinate amount of control on the SAG. I spoke to various sources who were stunned by the extent of Police Scotland’s influence in what is essentially not a matter for the police. I heard numerous allegations about the reasons behind Police Scotland’s objections, including personal politicking, self-interest and a refusal to back the proposals due to the association with Celtic’s Green Brigade group.

The most worrying allegation was that the objections were not even based on safety concerns but instead centred on the ease of policing standing sections. This was allegedly confirmed during one meeting of the SAG when the police raised the possibility of erecting fencing around the standing area. Given the role fencing played in historic stadium disasters, the short sightedness of this proposal seems incredible.

The standing section at Celtic Park is effectively being used as a trial run for the rest of Scottish football. Whether Police Scotland allow it to be successful remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, despite suffering crowd trouble during the 1970s and 80s, standing spectators have been an enduring sight in Scandinavian football. Standing is currently allowed in all three of the Nordic countries I looked at. All 16 top-flight stadiums in Sweden contain standing sections and the concept of “safe standing” does not even enter the thinking – many grounds retain old-school terracing long since lost from the UK.

Vålerenga will be the first Norwegian club to utilise “safe standing” rail seating when their new stadium is opened in 2017. In sharp contrast with Celtic’s travails this installation has not been subject to a protracted approval process; in fact no governing body intervention was required.

Scandinavian fans regard it as a funda-mental right of supporters to choose how they watch the game. Standing isn’t viewed as intrinsically less safe than sitting.

2. Booze Ban

In the aftermath of large scale rioting in the 1980 Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Celtic, the sale of alcohol within football stadiums in Scotland was made illegal by the passing of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980. That final was the culmination of drink-fuelled violence that had blighted the Scottish game for years.

The footballing and cultural landscape has changed dramatically in the 30 odd years since the ban was introduced. Even though half of all people attending games today take a drink before the game, violent disorder within stadiums has been virtually eradicated.

Recent years have seen a groundswell of opinion advocating a rethink.  A total of 62% of respondents to the 2014 SDS poll were in favour of lifting the alcohol ban, while 72% advocated the introduction of a small-scale trial.

There have been sporadic efforts at relaxing the restrictions, most recently a populist move by former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy in 2014. Yet again Police Scotland was hot on his heels, Chief Constable Stephen House stating at the time that he would be “extremely concerned by any proposal to amend legislation in respect of alcohol at
football matches in Scotland.”

Detractors will point to the recent trouble at the Scottish Cup final as evidence that widespread disorder at matches is only ever just over the brow of the hill. This isolated incident, completely uncharacteristic of Scottish football in the past few decades, will now be cited by governing bodies and lawmakers as justification for refusing to even contemplate removing the ban.

There is a phrase in legal circles which feels particularly pertinent when considering the wider impact this game should be allowed to have on our liberties as fans: “Hard cases make bad law”.

That game represented an almost unique set of circumstances: a more volatile than normal atmosphere amongst the fans due to recent spats between the clubs which was then exacerbated by a last-minute winner which ended Hibernian’s 114 year wait to lift the trophy.  Even then, the explosion of emotion from both sets of fans at the final whistle could have been contained had it not been for, somewhat ironically, inadequate policing.

The highly improbable confluence of these contributing factors shouldn’t be allowed to inform our match-going experience for years to come.  The 99% of us who are able to drink sensibly and act like responsible adults should be allowed to do so, while the police ensure any trouble is handled in the same way as any other alcohol-fuelled incident which occurs on any given Saturday night across the country.

As you might have guessed the story across the North Sea is very different. Alcohol is readily available at all grounds in Sweden and Denmark. A modicum of control is in place with the alcohol content of the beer on sale being restricted: 2.1 to 3.5% in Sweden and 3.5 to 4.1% in Denmark.

The availability of booze means fans arrive earlier at the ground than we are accustomed to in Scotland. Fans in Sweden and Denmark arrive between 30 and 90 minutes before kick-off. They enjoy a few pints, have some food, pump much-needed revenue into their clubs and generally contribute to an atmosphere that builds to kick-off.

3. No Pyro, No Party?

The use of pyro (i.e. smoke bombs and flares) within stadiums doesn’t do much for me personally as I’ve no real desire to stand in a plume of smoke while trying to watch the game. There is however a section of fans in Scotland, enthralled by images of sweeping curvas in European stadiums lit up with flares and draped in flags, that is determined pyro should be part of our match-day experience.

Norway allows pyro displays providing they are sanctioned by the clubs in advance and are carried out by trained individuals. In theory it is the same situation in Sweden and Denmark, but both countries are currently working out the finer details of how these rules will be implemented.

The key difference is how the Scandinavian authorities deal with the demand for pyro. Nordic associations, including their police forces, have had progressive, round table conversations with the fans to explore solutions which meet the needs of all parties. They are intent on finding safe ways of satisfying customer demand.

The Scottish approach on the other hand appears to centre on the implementation of punitive measures in the hope the topic will disappear from the agenda: a young Motherwell fan has recently been jailed for five months for letting off a smoke bomb inside Fir Park.

There are clearly safety concerns where pyro is involved and many people want nothing to do with it. However, at a time when clubs are trying to get as many fans through the turnstiles as possible, no avenue should be left unexplored. The current trend of young lads sneaking in uncontrolled pyro and discharging them in crowded areas is the biggest risk. Surely our clubs are able to implement controls to allow the aspiring ultras to have their fun while safeguarding other spectators?

Call to Arms

The silent majority need to make their voices heard. The authorities need to be made aware that the continued pursuit of the family-friendly agenda to the exclusion of all else needs to stop. The hard working punters who hand over their cash at the turnstiles and want to stand, have a few beers and maybe even take part in some organised pyro, have as much right to be accommodated as families. There is no justification for us to be treated so badly in comparison with our European counterparts.

I have two young daughters who I take to Pittodrie on occasion. They barely watch the game but they are enthralled by the sensory experience: the buzz of the crowd, the smell of the burgers, Angus the Bull firing some Fruit of the Loom t-shirts into the crowd.

I also attend games with a group of mates. We have a few pints before and after the game, sing a few songs, dish out some good-natured abuse to opposition fans and let off some steam. There is no reason why our game can’t cater for both of these scenarios.

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

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