Our game needs to watch it - is football one bad flare-up away from visiting fans being banned?
Awaydays should be the most fun a football fan can have with his clothes on. Of course many choose to strip to the waist, and are not remotely self-conscious about their say-aye-to-a-pie bellies, but you know what I mean.
Yes, a grand adventure, being with good friends, travelling the land, maybe a new ground for the first time, banter and bevvy, fish and chips at Stonehaven if it’s on the route, and – go wild, go wild, go wild in the country – maybe even if it’s not. Am I over-romanticising awaydays? Too Golden Gordon? Well, right now, in view of recent events, possibly that is the case.
Those images from Dens Park were jaw-dropping, even though we’d seen similar before and maybe thought we’d become inured to them. One end of the ground seemingly on fire. Flares burning fiercely red, the inhabitants of a packed stand lost in the smoke. And every single one of them, I bet, held aloft by a Rangers fan too young to remember what happened at Valley Parade.
A couple of weeks before, at Rangers vs Hibernian, vile calling cards left behind by visiting supporters. Stickers celebrating the Ibrox disaster and “66” scrawled on seats – the number who died. The culprits almost certainly weren’t alive in 1971 – not that ignorance is any excuse. And a couple of weeks before that, a charge at the turnstiles at Motherwell and fire doors forced open so ticketless Celtic fans could gain access.
Add all the trashed fixtures and fittings discovered when the seagulls dive for pizza remnants – and the problematic, provocative and often most hateful chants in the Scottish football songbook, belted out from first whistle to last – and we seem to have a not insignificant problem. Any more of it and the question might have to be asked: should away supporters be banned from all games?
The trouble, I accept, with being able to remember when there were “For the fans” notices in my local evening newspaper – a drawing of a parping omnibus with scarves fluttering from rear windows and info about pick-up times for excursions to Ayr, Airdrie or wherever – is that you can’t be absolutely sure football is getting edgier or it’s just that you’re getting older.
“No, edgier, definitely,” say younger pals. So how come? What’s going on? Amateur psychologists – and some professional ones – would probably begin by painting a picture of a post-Covid landscape and how, immediately after lockdown, lots of people went a little bit mad. Because we could, basically. Most of this was spontaneous exuberance and most of us would quickly calm right down. But not everyone did.
Can we blame social media and its culture of easy enmity? How one set of fans can abuse another daily, minute by misbegotten minute? How there was no platform for this before, during the long waits for a game between their teams, unless they wrote letters to each other, affixed a stamp and walked to a postbox, which funnily enough never happened? Yes, Twitter, now X, can take part of the rap.
Can we blame our leaders – the politicians – for their lack of leadership? Can we blame the general disenfranchisement and disgruntlement? The fact we’re so tribal now and not just about the teams we support? So pro one thing and, it must automatically follow, anti the other? So shorn of our traditional reserve and time-honoured tolerance and so quick to criticise and condemn? So angry, so much of the time?
I may be straying from my original point so let’s talk about drugs. We can joke about Scottish football sometimes seeming to be played under the influence of mogadon. I can joke about wishing I could have doused my Bovril with LSD during the 2012 Scottish Cup final so as to be transported someplace far, far away from Hampden and Hearts leathering Hibs. But it was that season’s semi-final, against Aberdeen, when I walked into the loos as a cocaine party was in full swing. That was my first awareness of drugs at football. Those fans, when discovered, were sheepish but there’s brazenness about the drugged-up now. Earlier this year Radio Scotland’s John Beattie asked if drugs were behind increased bad behaviour at games. This was disputed by supporters who demanded statistical proof. A few weeks later Stirling University published research showing that cocaine abuse was a bigger cause of hooliganism than alcohol.
So, put all this together, does it create an ultra? What, that black-clad bequeather of “atmosphere”, just a pity he’s so drum-heavy? Not all ultras are cokeheads, of course they aren’t. Not all awaydayers are intent on trouble, nothing like. Many cherish travelling with their team, a life-enhancing source of amused reminiscence. Storming Fir Park, most just wanted to see the game. Lighting up Dens Park, all would have been horrified if the pyrotechnics had got out of hand. Which unfortunately leaves those Hibs morons and what the hell they thought they were doing with their taunts about Scottish football’s blackest day.
Although Hibs have condemned them, might Rangers ban the club’s fans from Ibrox next time? That wouldn’t be a total surprise. And if Scottish football is so intent on having pyros, would it accept controlled displays, possibly overseen by “Firework Phil” Anderton, once lighter of the blue touch paper at Murrayfield? Almost definitely not.
But our game needs to watch it. Indeed, supporters need to watch the match. Revel in it, shout and bawl and, okay, drum. But anything else, what are you really there for? And if anything else turns into something really bad, then maybe the lockouts of the Old Firm will become normal practice. And think how antiseptic and desultory and imperilling to football that would be.
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