• Jonathan Brannan

IS SCOTTISH SOCCER'S IMAGE AT STAKE?

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

This article was originally published on March 13th, 2019.


"We have anarchy," cried soccer journalist Hugh Keevins (@shinjukushug), after seeing fans invade the field during a Hibernian versus Rangers match.


"For [James] Tavernier it has got to bee have been a shocking and frightening moment and to see these scenes is thoroughly depressing. We have a decent product here, we have a better product than we have had for some time and yet it is marred by bottle-throwing, coin throwing, sectarian singing, flare throwing. It is an unsavory environment at the moment, and when people are talking about having second thought about taking their children to football, that's when football has to react for the good of the game as a whole."

The fan would later admit to a breach of the peace, after confronting Rangers' James Tavernier (@James_Tavernier) and has been banned from all Scottish grounds.

SPFL


In the last year, Scottish soccer has seen the swagger returning to the game, for the first time in recent years.

In 2018, the European Professional Football League (EPFL) announced the results of its second Fan Attendance Report. The report measured the attendance of 32 leagues in 25 countries across Europe.


The data revealed that Scotland's top-flight receives the highest average attendance per game, on a per capita basis. That average attendance of 11,436, set against a population of 5,373,000 means 0.21% of Scots are regularly attending football matches.

The announcement highlighted that Scotland outperforms Germany (0.05), England (0.07), Spain (0.06), Italy (0.04), and France (0.03) when the country’s relative populations are brought into the equation.


Scottish Professional Football League chief executive Neil Doncaster said: "It is a further sign that our game is in good health and we hope that trend will continue in the years ahead."


The 2018/19 Scottish soccer season was set up to become one of the most exciting in recent years. Rangers' box office signing of legendary Liverpool player Steven Gerrard ready to wrestle the Premiership title away from former boss Brendan Rodgers' 7-in-a-row champions.

On the Field


However, despite the teams dominating the sports pages, the league has also often found itself plastered across the front pages for all the wrong reasons. The number of unsavory off-field incidents continues to increase.


Recently Scottish soccer has seen several incidences of missiles being thrown on to the field.

A glass bottle was thrown towards Celtic winger Scott Sinclair (@Scotty_Sinclair) and coins aimed at Partick Thistle manager Gary Caldwell (@garycaldwell05).

Even Dunfermline Athletic midfielder Dean Shiels was on the end of missiles after plastic eyeballs were thrown onto the field. Referring to the Northern Ireland international losing sight in one eye after a domestic accident when he was eight years old.

Videos have also surfaced on social media appearing to show a seat being launched from an area housing Rangers supports during a Scottish Cup game with Aberdeen.


Celtic boss Neil Lennon has been subject to several incidents involving supporters during his first spell in charge of Celtic and, last year, while manager of Hibernian.


Over the past few years, Celtic have been fined a number of times, after supporters let off fireworks and flares during European matches.


And Rangers have had to pay for repairs to Falkirk's pitch in 2013 after it was scorched by a flare thrown by their fans during a Scottish Cup tie.

"It is important that we keep trying to have a positive image of the game around the world," said Gerrard.


"Scottish football is shown round the world and when you speak about Scottish football and games up here to people they are excited about what they see, the standard, the intensity and they talk about all the positives.

"We don't want to get in a situation where people are talking about what is coming from the stands and talking about the bad side of the game.

"It is not just about me and what I think, it is about the image around the world.

"In the main, I think we are in a good place. There have been a few isolated incidents that have crept in recently but let's hope that doesn't snowball and that type of behavior continues - then we have got a big problem."


Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes says the spate of incidents at recent games is "something that's got to be stamped out".


"I think there are too many supporters from probably every club who will turn up with the intention of being a nuisance, causing problems, thinking because they pay into the ground they can say and do whatever they like," said McInnes.


"And there have been far too many incidents of late.


"And what it does do is shines a light on our game in a poor way, instead of focusing on the so many positives in our league at the minute. Good players, good managers, good teams, competitive, crowds up, all the rest of it.


"I think we've all got to take responsibility for that, each and every club, and each and every supporter."

Anti-Social Behavior


Fans have been the main ingredient that has given Scottish soccer its unique flavor.


Despite this creating an amazing atmosphere, anti-social behavior. has never been far away.


"The warnings were coming for this because we have allowed yob behavior to fester in stadiums over the last 15 to 20 years," said former Scotland manager Gordon Strachan.


"There used to be hooligan behavior where all the nutcases went to one corner to shout their bile. You knew where they were.


"But it's seeping through to all parts of the ground now."


As a result, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) has formed multiple working groups to combat disruption.


In 2016, the league proposed the installation of facial recognition technology at stadiums across the country, as clubs look to combat anti-social behavior. Which would entail the capturing and archiving of all supporters' faces at the turnstiles. Any banned fan would then be flagged to security and police at the venue, making it significantly easier for authorities to eject those who have been guilty of offensive behavior in the past.


The idea was roundly rejected by fans, who staged protests across the country, with banners at Parkhead and Ibrox calling for police and authorities to "recognize fans' rights."


One sign held aloft by Celtic fans on Sunday urged them to "end the criminalization of football fans."


"We firmly believe it's more about posturing than anything else, whether it be from the police or the football authorities," says Paul Goodwin, director of the Scottish Football Supporters Association (SFSA). "It was thrown out at a time when Strict Liability was under discussion, and yet facial recognition became the headline grabber."


Indeed, the issue of Strict Liability, the standard used by UEFA for tackling offensive behavior at football matches – and whether it should be adopted by Scottish football clubs have been the subject of perhaps even more significant debate in recent weeks and months. While it may be of little concern to fans, clubs, in general, are strongly opposed to something that would make them culpable for the actions of individuals.


"Facial recognition at stadiums would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut," says Goodwin, citing similar figures to illustrate how the criminality of Scottish soccer fans weighs up in the context of wider society. "I met with the police not so long ago and they didn't mention that it was something they were interested in. We just haven't seen any evidence that warrants it."


At a time when Scottish soccer is in desperate need of grassroots development, as well as top-level investment, the installation of facial recognition technology is hardly considered a priority by the wider public. The national game should be seeking to attract new fans, not force existing ones away.

Offensive Behaviour Act


A decision which is believed by many Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) to have escalated some behavior is the government's repeal of the 'Offensive Behaviour at Football Act'.


The Act was originally developed to make Scotland's problem concerning sectarian behavior at soccer games.


However, the SNP’s James Dornan (@glasgowcathcart) said lifting the legislation had led to an increase in the number of incidents, suggesting that soccer fans in Scotland are living “in the dark ages”.


“I think it’s quite clear that football fans feel more enabled to sing their songs, there’s more invasions of pitches, we’ve seen more coin throwing, we’ve seen all sorts of behaviors seem to increase over the last couple of years.


“The Act was by no means perfect, but I think that by repealing it we sent out a signal that we don’t take this seriously and to be honest, the football authorities and the two big clubs [Celtic and Rangers] do not take it seriously enough as far as I’m concerned.


“It’s a football issue and a society issue and football has to deal with it.”


Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly (@JamesKellyLab) described the legislation as a “botched attempt” to tackle the issue of bigotry and intolerance.


“It didn’t work and it was right to appeal it because it targeted football fans,” said Mr Kelly.

“I think there’s an onus on all of us, politicians and wider society, to tackle this issue.


“This issue was with us before the Act, it was there during that and it’s still here now. I don’t agree that in some way it’s increased because of the repeal of the Act.


“We need people working together to look at how we tackle it in wider society, we need to condemn in absolute terms all instances of bigotry and intolerance and the clubs do need to do more, and there’s an onus on them to do that immediately.


“They need to come out and say what they’re going to do around tackling issues of hatred.”


A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government confirmed on Thursday it has spoken with the Scottish FA and Rangers regarding the matter of fan behavior.


She said, “There is no place for any kind of prejudice in Scotland and we are committed to tackling all forms of discrimination. This is why we have committed to maintaining funding to deliver work to tackle sectarianism.


“The vast majority of football supporters are well-behaved, however, there is still a problem and we must never lose sight of the collective need across society to have a zero-tolerance approach on offensive behavior.


“We have discussed this with the Scottish FA and Rangers and will continue to discuss with them, and others, what further action can be taken to address this issue as there continue to be problems with unacceptable conduct in Scottish football, highlighted by a number of recent incidents.


“There needs to be stronger action by football clubs to tackle this vile cancer still plaguing our society and beautiful game.”

Alcohol


In the 1980s, the Scottish government had an attempt at combating anti-social fan behavior.


Following the riot at the 1980 Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Celtic, a ban on alcohol was imposed. Meaning that fans could no longer consume alcohol inside stadiums.


In recent months, there have been calls for the ban to be lifted from a new generation of Scottish soccer fans, who feel they are being punished for the sins of the past.


Supporters Direct Scotland say that in association with the SFA, their extensive research into supporters' perceptions of the alcohol ban, shows that 62% of participants in the survey were in favor of lifting the ban, with 72% backing the introduction of a small-scale trial of selling alcohol in Scottish football stadiums.


Furthermore, Glasgow is set to be a host city for Euro 2020. As it stands Hampden Park would be the only stadium used during the tournament where alcohol will not be available to supporters.


However, it would seem unlikely that there will be any changes made in time for the European Championship, especially with the Scottish Police Federation stating their belief that the risk is just too great.


It said there was evidence that football authorities were already struggling to manage crowds appropriately.


David Hamilton, the SPF's vice chairman said "We don't have the same problems in rugby stadia that we do in football.


"We don't see toilets being trashed, we don't see pyrotechnics.


"They are particular problems for football and the idea of adding alcohol to that mix does not seem to make sense."


Despite discussions on the reintroduction of the sale of alcohol, it would quickly be halted.


The first Edinburgh derby of the 2018/19 season, between Hearts and Hibernian, descended into a powderkeg. Hearts goalkeeper Bobby Zlamal was punched by a fan, assistant referees were hit by missiles thrown from the stands, while the physical and sectarian abuse of Hibernian manager Neil Lennon resumed.


The behavior led to Police Scotland again shutting down the chance for progress on the alcohol debate.


"Police Scotland believes we should maintain the position of a no alcohol at football policy," Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins said.

Positive Image


Over the past century and a half soccer has played a major role in Scottish culture. The biweekly pilgrimage to the local team’s stadium is a deep-rooted and long-held tradition, particularly for working-class communities.


However, as each year comes and goes it gets further and further away from the glory days on the field. While the gap between Scotland and the elite European leagues continues to grow larger, without any sign of slowing down.


“I have said it in my last couple of press conferences and I will echo it again that it is not nice to see,” Rangers manager Steven Gerrard said.


“Scottish football is shown around the world and when you speak about Scottish football and games up here to people they are excited about what they see, the standard, the intensity and they talk about all the positives.


“We don’t want to get in a situation where people are talking about what is coming from the stands and talking about the bad side of the game.


“It is important that we keep trying to have a positive image of the game around the world.


“It is not just about me and what I think, it is about the image around the world.


“In the main, I think we are in a good place. There have been a few isolated incidents that have crept in recently but let’s hope that doesn’t snowball and that type of behavior continues – then we have got a big problem.


“It is not nice to see from the side. I have had some experiences as a player; it is poor behavior and we need to stamp it out.”


Scotland must find a way to fix its image off the field through better fan behavior, most likely through fans self-policing. Once this solution has been found Scotland may become the country that soccer fans flock t as they seek unique sporting character and experiences.