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Sporting Matters: Who Crushes a Butterfly on a Wheel?

“To step aside is human” (Robert Burns, Address to the Unco Guid)

“Football without fans is nothing” (Jock Stein, legendary Celtic manager)


Alec RossTo tell readers of this column that I’m a supporter of Scottish Independence and a member of the SNP would rightly bring a question in response that would include the words “bear” and “woods”, or perhaps an enquiry about his Holiness the Pope and his alleged membership of the Roman Catholic faith. But being a member of something doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with everything that it does. Indeed, it’s unhealthy if you do. Robust debate keeps us honest. Of the many good things about devolution, being afforded the privilege to make bad decisions and take ownership of them is chief amongst them. I cannot wait for the day when our inevitable independence means that we succeed and fail entirely on our own terms and maturely accept the plaudits and the inevitable brickbats that follow. We will own our failures. No Excuses, as Henrik Larsson’s  Celtic T-shirt used to say.

This week’s HOOP event (Hands Off Our Parliament) – along with Holyrood’s overwhelming support for the continuity bill reminds us that Scotland is mostly united in its dismay at the Westminster power grab and that Scotland likes having a Parliament with teeth. In a week when British Tories from Scottish constituencies were throwing dead fish into the Thames, Holyrood got on with the business of protecting the devolution settlement. While Westminster flounders and loses its sole in an ocean of hake news, Scotland aims to flourish. Who should speak for Scotland? No contest. If independence floats your boat, this has been a good week.

Flag_of_Scotland_with_footballWith fishing, Brexit and the Withdrawal Bill (as well as the unfolding Cambridge Analytica scandal) dominating the headlines, a significant event in Scotland’s story went largely unnoticed this week – the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA).

It was a landmark, flagship piece of legislation from a party that I’m a member of, so I’ll level with you from the start. I’m glad it’s gone. From its earliest days, it felt like a policy designed to needlessly insult those who were aware of it – and they were in the minority because it actually had zero impact on the majority for whom it was rarely if ever discussed over a pre-match bevvy or on online fan forums. Politicians who “get” football are a rare thing indeed (Henry McLeish is a notable exception) but that is no excuse for failing to  anticipate the resentment felt by fans who were criminalised for singing a song at Celtic Park which would have been considered perfectly fine at Murrayfield.

I was amongst the majority of fans who weren’t affected by the legislation, but the name riled me and betrayed a lingering prejudice. Why “At Football”? Surely offensive behaviour is offensive behaviour, and it fuelled suspicions that we haven’t moved on as we might have done from the days when fans were “othered”, when we were part of Thatcher’s “enemy within”, a widespread attitude among the authorities that led to proposals for an ID scheme, to crumbling stadia and substandard facilities. An attitude that led, tragically, to Hillsborough and which persisted long enough for justice for the ninety-six to be delayed for over a quarter of a century.

Why single out football? This week saw online footage of three Scotland rugby fans belting out “The Sash” in Rome before the Six Nations match against Italy. The journalist, Hugh MacDonald,  maintained recently that the worst cases of public drunkenness, racism and homophobia he ever witnessed was not an Old Firm game but amongst England fans walking to a game. At Twickenham. The thing he most remembers, he said, are the smiling policemen. But then, we are football fans. Different. Uncultured. Deserving of specific – discriminatory – policies. It is a strange week indeed when I end it by agreeing with a Tory, but when Conservative MSP Liam Kerr warned against castigating the football fan as “a single, homogeneous, malevolent entity”, I was grateful for his intervention. I will allow him and his party to enjoy the celebrations that befit a rare away win that will do nothing to alter the destination of the title.

I accept that there are some legitimate concerns about the timing of the repeal, and of its motives. The process moved to its next stage less than two days after a paramilitary style march organised by the “Union Bears”, a group of hardline Rangers ‘ultras’ ahead of the game against Celtic (or “The Fenians”, as their promotional fliers called them). But then it’s either a useful piece of legislation or it’s not, and if it isn’t – and I suspect that the perceived demonisation of fans and the stubborn increase in the hardline behaviour of a minority of that club’s fans are related – then there’s never a bad time to remove it – particularly when there’s already the legislation on the statute book to deal with anti-social behaviour whether it happens in a football stadium or on a high street pavement.

As for the motives for the repeal, there was undoubtedly an element in Holyrood that enjoyed  a little schadenfreude at the SNP’s discomfort as having a flagship policy revoked, but frankly that’s human nature and I’m less bothered about the motives of the opposition parties if we’ve got the correct decision – and I think we have. And here’s why.

boysIn my near forty years as a football fan, my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Being involved as a player and as a spectator has enriched my life infinitely. I cannot imagine life without it. People talk about the best moments of their life – their wedding day, the birth of their weans, and I understand that and it’s my experience too. But a big part of me also wants to say: greatest moment ever? Seriously? The second Griffiths free kick at Hampden. The kickabout with the German fans in Dortmund. And for fans of my generation who were in the Parc des Princes that night to see James McFadden’s winning goal, we’ll always have Paris. Some people might find that shocking, but all true football fans feel this way. Raucous, funny, surreal, sweary, occasionally drunken, happy, sad, elated, frustrated – but never offensive. Well, hardly ever. That pink Scotland away kit was a close call, and I once watched Tony Cascarino trying to trap a ball while playing for Celtic. But this was about as offensive as it ever got. So when the Act was passed, it brought to mind a line from the great Alexander Pope. Who crushes a butterfly on a wheel?

The act felt like well meaning legislators thinking that “something must be done”. It was doomed from the get-go. The catalyst, inevitably, was a set-to between the two managers at the end of an otherwise unremarkable Old Firm game. It was a pretty rubbish rammy, if I’m being honest. Handbags, at best. I’ve seen more aggro between two old pensioners arguing about whose turn it is to pay for the scones. But it was live on the telly, so thatessenpee should do something. Events shortly down the line invited further scepticism and scorn, as the justice secretary was interviewed in front of Rangers fans celebrating their cup win by giving the whole anti-Irish songbook laldy. “What a wonderful atmosphere” he said, or something like it. It was ludicrous stuff.

But what did for the Act was its premise – or falseness thereof. By focussing narrowly on football as the source of the problem it completely missed what should have been its real target. Because behaviour at football matches is the symptom of societal malaise, not the cause of it. Football fans, now and always, are an easy target but so too is the ignorance and hypocrisy that surrounded (past tense) the bill.

Scottish society – in particular west of Scotland society, which (let’s not kid ourselves here) is what the act was actually about, has moved on from the days when there were jobs for which Catholics need not apply. There are fewer and fewer people around who even remember that Scotland, and perhaps what we are witnessing in the name-calling, Union Bear belonging, GSTQ / FTP cartoonish ultra-unionism of 2018 the flickering embers of an irrelevance, raging against the dying of the light. In an interview a few years ago, the great Rangers manager Walter Smith spoke about the societal sectarian divide that he grew up in, but mentioned that he would happily pay to get into Parkhead to watch their great rivals, European Cup champions Celtic, if his beloved Teddy Bears were playing away. He didn’t consider this unusual. At the time, nobody did. So, as Professor Sir Tom Devine notes, it is curious that the OBF Act was introduced at a time when the wider problem was rapidly receding.

In the end, the problem isn’t football and it never was. Football fans – like me – rightly resent the timidity of our leaders in tackling the root causes. We are rightly indignant at the lack of moral courage of our leaders who, in trying to be fair and equal, bestow a bogus moral equivalence that is undeserved. Fans of every club – Celtic included – are right to feel aggrieved when, if there is a problem, it resides in one place and one place only.

Some people express some views that we don’t like. That’s true of football fans but it’s equally true of the society that supporters are part of. It was never fair to criminalise a daft laddie with too much alcohol in his blood for singing a rude song about the Queen, particularly when the country that criminalises him effectively sanctions and condones sectarian marches through the streets of Glasgow and beyond that intimidate Scotland’s Catholic community every July. It was patently unfair to enact a law that demonises fans in an age when two of the unionist parties have elected members espousing sectarian, racist, homophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric but who are still in their jobs. For all our progress, intolerance is still part of our DNA. It bubbles away, just below the inclusive and sophisticated veneer of modern Scotland, and that has nothing to do with football fans and absolutely everything with a country that, for all its progress, will be by definition limited until we finally ditch the old prejudices along with a constitutional arrangement that has long passed its sell-by date.

Coming back on the ferry from Larne last night, I watched a clip of the England manager, Gareth Southgate’s, press conference. I applauded his refusal to condemn Russia. We have racism in our own country, he said. We need to check our own snares. We need to clean our own back yard.

Scotland gave football to the world. The rise and fall of OBFA is a salutary reminder that we ourselves have much to learn. The first step in overcoming a problem is admitting that there is one. A well-meaning but misguided act has been repealed, thank God. If it has forced us to look in the mirror, then its rise and fall need not have been in vain.

But that is up to us.

playing football


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