I imagined a tribute but it may end asa requiem. Only a few weeks ago, St Johnstone played host to a Hearts side struggling with self-confidence, and burdened with doubt about the sustainability of their new management team. The home team won. But even before a ball was kicked, rumours swept McDiarmid Park’s East Stand that the board of St Johnstone FC had fallen out of love with Fair City Unity, the club’s young ultras. Some said the group had voluntarily disbanded, others that the club had withdrawn co-operation and was no longer willing to offer a dedicated area of the stadium for standing and singing, and that they had ended an unofficial agreement to provide a room at the ground where the ultras could store equipment and make their match-day banners. It was not an uncommon stand-off. Celtic had two years of wrangling with the Green Brigade, and Motherwell’s ultra-team, The Bois, had their moments of tension too. A man who sits in front of me in the centre of East Stand said his grandson was in the FCU and that he was worried that the guys might just fade away, disillusioned with the decision. That was the worst possible outcome. Three generations of supporting Saints connected the grandfather to his 15-year-old grandson, and the idea that his young and passionate generation might fade away is exactly the outcome St Johnstone could not afford.
The dispute with Fair City Unity came to a head after a series of incidents at away matches, including fighting at an away game at Dundee, a piece of adolescent theatre at Motherwell and a raid on rival fans at Hamilton, which itself was retaliation for an incident at a previous game. It was the complaints of violence outside the ground that forced the board to take action, fearful that FCU might blight St Johnstone’s reputation as a family-friendly club. It was a bitingly ironic time for the board to be taking the decision. A much more serious incident had flared, an hour after fans fought outside a pub in Hamilton. Two of the club’s players – Danny Swanson and Richard Foster – set about each other on the pitch, grabbing headlines bigger and bolder than any low-level skirmish among fans.
Scottish football has been brightened by the arrival of the ultras. Celtic’s Green Brigade – their name hinting at armed conflict in both Ireland and Spain – have become one of the most imaginative and politically engaged fan groups in Europe. The Rangers group, Blue Order, and Aberdeen’s Red Ultras have managed to carve out a space in an era where season-ticket allocations have often separated and split up the noisier fan elements. Small in number but no less committed to their art are the Bois of Motherwell and Fair City Unity. Their match-day theatrics are phenomenally well-orchestrated and pre-planned. Banners are unravelled in praise of the greats or in rage against the machine – not least the Offensive Behaviour Act, a well-intentioned but utterly flawed piece of legislation that aimed to combat sectarian behaviour but ended up discriminating against football fans.
The ultras bring agit-prop and street theatre to football. Drums are beaten mercilessly, sometimes for the full 90 minutes, often held aloft or sometimes taped securely to a seat to maximise the beat. Out front is the megaphone barking instructions, maintaining unison and signalling the next chant from the song sheet. Motherwell’s Bois have added a touch of Grand Guignol to proceedings with coloured masks and claret and amber balaclavas, turning disguise into drama in these times of closed circuit cameras and security screening. The ultra groups have brought colour, spectacle and commitment to a game in danger of losing it soul. Atmosphere has evaporated, and some grounds have lost their capacity to intimidate. The idea that sizable numbers of young men and boys are willing to meet up to rehearse and pre-plan their ‘performance’ is something to marvel at, not condemn. These are the fans of the future, just as much as the much-trumpeted ‘family atmosphere’ that many clubs have tried to cultivate with mascots and fun-days. Somehow they are rarely respected. We are asked to believe that inept penalty shoot-outs involving eight year olds is good for the game but gangs of teenagers in floppy fringes bouncing in unison, is not.
A false memory syndrome has gripped Scottish football. A generation of older fans have grown up forgetful of their own youth and in denial about the parlous state of Scottish football in the 1970s and 1980s, when waves of football hooliganism blighted the game. We often airbrush the worst events from our memory. In the early 1970s Scotland had some of the worst football behaviour problems in Europe. Buses were stoned, full-scale battles broke out on the terracing, often spilling on to the pitch, and we had a national team whose infamous supporters, the Tartan Army, were a byword for social disturbance, sacking London like a tribal horde. The ban on drink at football was not the fault of today’s ultras but their forefathers, who brought shame even to showpiece events. Then there was the rise of the casuals, a pathologically fashionable era of football hooliganism that detached itself from the familiar forms of identity, dispensing with scarves and colours and adopting styles from sportswear and designer fashion. The violence was more targeted, often away from the grounds and the supporters’ buses, but no less sudden and chaotic as battles – some planned and others sporadic – erupted at railway stations and in city centres. Anyone who thinks the current fashion for ultra groups is in anyway comparable to the mayhem of the past has forgotten the facts. And yet there is a generation of older men and women who pass judgement down on the young as if waving a flag and bouncing in unison is somehow worse than supporters’ buses being bricked as they made their way to and from the grounds.
In modern football nothing irritates me more than the naysayers and tooth suckers of the quiet stands moaning about the ultras, as if they grew up in some sheltered nostalgia where the football was magical and the fans brought innocent colour to the proceedings. The young ultras are denounced, ridiculed and at worst alienated from the clubs they love, paradoxically by older fans from the same community.
In an act of brattish provocation the FCU chose as their colours dark blue and white, the traditional colours of rivals Dundee. It was a choice that simultaneously irritated older fans and signalled that FCU ‘owned’ the Dundee Derry. Baffling or brilliant – the very definition of youth culture.
Many older fans forget something else about the ultras: they are young, in some cases very young. They are the future at many clubs, born long after Orwell’s 1984 and closer to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are kids whose lives have straddled the millennium. They have no great grounding in the Scottish football of the ancient past nor are they hugely interested. Born in a digital era, they have grown up able to source football from every major league in Europe, but despite the lure of wealth and glamour and stardom, they have remained loyal to their local clubs. That is remarkable dedication. They have grown up in Europe before Brexit, and can go online and join away-day web forums that feature bewildering clips of Italian ultras arriving in Rome like a hedonistic army, billowed in smoke, enlightened by fluorescent flares and carrying banners bigger than Caesar’s legions. It is a drama of possibilities so much more romantic than hearing old guys talk about the day they were chased at Falkirk.
For many of them the past is a prison. In the case of Fair City Unity, they instinctively feel that St Johnstone is naturally a top-six team and that winning cups and qualifying for Europe is the norm. Oh happy days. It was at a game in the Europa League that I first became aware of Fair City Unity. St Johnstone beat Rosenberg. The club’s young talisman Stevie May scored an audacious chipped goal and spun off to the lower East Stand to milk the applause from young boys feverishly waving flags in a style more commonly seen at much bigger clubs in Italy or France.
Most Scottish ultras are European millennials, in whose time British fans stopped leading the way and began borrowing from the European game. Celtic’s Green Brigade borrowed the Poznan or ‘Greque’ – bouncing with backs turned to the ground – from the Polish club Lech Poznan, and the scarves tied dramatically across the face of fans in Perth or Motherwell is a conceit borrowed from the ultras of Italy’s Serie A.
I have watched my team evolve over a lifetime and misbehaviour has been an undercurrent in every decade, from the skinhead era of the Mental Pack to the casual mayhem of the Mainline Baby Squad. At last a group has emerged that has brought something entirely positive to the club – atmosphere and enthusiasm. I hope they never drift away. They are ultras now but the passionate fathers of tomorrow. Let the drums beat louder.