Strictly speaking

Here former Scottish professional footballer, coach and assistant manager, David Farrell gives his own take on the issues facing football in Scotland. Unlike those ex-footballers pontificating from a comfy seat in a warm television studio, Farrell  travels all over Scotland on a supporters bus following his team. Here are his thoughts.

 

Scottish football has seen a worrying spate of on and off field incidents in recent months, but punishing the subservient majority, is NOT the answer.
I’m being demonised. My crime is to dust off my old retro kit, trek up and down the length and breadth of the country and go to watch my football team. I’m a mature, passionate supporter of the beautiful game being made to feel as though I’m a second class citizen, and on occasion, a danger to society.
I love nothing more than taking my son to watch our team play every week. That team is Celtic, and really everything in my garden should be rosy, but it’s not. And the truth is, I’m sick of it. Sick of not being trusted, sick of being forced into narrow pens like pigs on abattoir day and sick of being threatened with not being able to watch MY team play, because SOME OTHER imbecilic runt threw a coin, tossed a bottle or clambered three feet on to the hallowed turf to celebrate a goal.
MP’s, media sages, journalists and our beloved authorities are ravenous in their pursuit of football fans. I don’t know what’s behind it, but there’s a momentum gathering that doesn’t look like it will stop until the good, ordinary punter is chased away for good, leaving behind a minority cesspit that will tarnish the game forever. Ordinary football supporters are being singled out for perverse preferential treatment right now and ‘strict liability’ is their rod with which to beat. Well, not on my watch.
Two-and-a-half years ago I left my role as Assistant Manager at St Mirren. After 18 years as a player and 10 as a coach, I was out, tossed like an old sweaty sock on the dressing room floor to fend for myself and see if I could recreate that unenviable buzz in some other form. I decided at that moment to go back to my first love of watching Celtic full time, home and away. My boy and his Dad, just like I’d done with mine, traipsing all over the country (and occasionally Europe) for our footballing fix. I’d never really gotten away from it in truth. Even through my playing and coaching days, I still took the opportunity to go and see them whenever I could, sometimes to the ridiculous extent that I could even play against them one week and be a guest on the supporters bus the next. I’m still convinced that my old manager at Hibs – Alex Miller – didn’t trust me to give as much against Celtic as he did in Rangers games and Edinburgh derbies. I had a good spell in the early 90’s where I made the squad most weeks, and yet I rarely seemed to pit my wits against my heroes. He really should have known better. I’d have kicked my Granny, two-footed my sister and trampled over our elderly neighbour no matter what colour of shirt they had worn for a £300 win bonus.
Fast forward 25 years, and I’m back on the other side of the white line. Arranging weekends and work shifts around where and when we are playing on any given day of the week. Away fixtures at 3pm on a Saturday are a thing of the past. 16 years it’s been, 16 years since Celtic had that privilege for a League game. That’s the price we pay for prostituting our undervalued product to the bloodsucking executives of Murdoch’s empire.
And what do we get in return? Contempt, poor treatment and intimidation; that’s what.
I’ve missed one away game since that fateful day in September ’16, when St Mirren sacked me and consigned me to a life of happiness and contentment as a spectator. Dave King’s selfish, misguided decision to reduce the allocation at Ibrox, meant that I was unable to get a ticket for the greatest show on earth, and ensured that many thousands of Rangers fans with it, would also have to make do with a reciprocal view of the match from their own front room the next time Rangers visited Celtic Park. On the back of all those experiences bar Ibrox, now is the time for me to highlight some of the treatment of our fans. Now let me make this absolutely clear – I cannot speak for any other sets of away fans because I don’t know how they are treated at Celtic Park, but I do have a very good Rangers supporting mate who never misses an away game, and speaking regularly it is evident that our recollections at many grounds in Scotland, are remarkably similar.
It is also important to emphasise at this point, that an element of the support does not help the situation with their behaviour. Alcohol undoubtedly plays a part. I, like many punters at most clubs, enjoy a beer at an away game, but with that comes responsibility. With ‘sold out’ signs up at every away ground, tickets are at a premium and with the magnificent, halcyon days of the ‘lift over’ long gone, entering the ground with forged tickets is back on the increase, as is the age-old practice of ‘doubling up.’ Smuggling flares and smoke canisters into the ground is also an issue, although I fail to see why we seem to have such a problem with it, when many countries in Europe seem to actively encourage pyrotechnic displays Guy Fawkes would be proud of, judging by the weekly images I catch on social media. Overcrowding before and during the games has become a serious issue and on many occasions, police and stewards are most definitely not helping with their manner and ill-judged plans.
It is much more by luck than judgement that a serious incident hasn’t occurred before now.
I hadn’t been to Pittodrie in years as a supporter. Heading past the harbour on the bus evoked memories of being sneaked into the Welly Boot pub with the old man, before making our way down to The Paddock end and latterly heading, in my teenage years, to the Beach End. My nostalgic view was clouded somewhat when I realised there was to be no more romanticism as our bus sped through town, past a steel 15ft high fence, through the gates and straight into the footprint of the stadium. Horrendous. It felt like a G4S van entering Barlinnie. That we were being transported like condemned sheep to Aberdeen of all places, was the greatest irony of ironies. A walk around the exercise yard (sorry, bus park) later and we were ready to walk the final gauntlet. A 50-yard line of uniformed officers and stewards showed us the way through two ticket checks and a body search before we could enter the stadium. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the matchday experience in Scotland. Throw in a police bus search on the way up, where an officer who couldn’t answer if they had stopped rugby coaches the previous week and checked their bags for a fly can of Charger, coupled with the handing out of free cans of Guinness and lager in Princes Street to those attending Murrayfield and I’m sure you can see where I’m coming from.
And yes, of course they found nothing.
At Tynecastle last season (where the entrance to the new turnstiles are a well-known bottleneck) we were forced onto the pavement to ‘queue.’ 1800 fans squeezing from the width of a road to the width of a pavement must have seemed like a good idea in the police planning room. Especially when a line of officers, police dogs barking, horses and stewards stood a mere one yard from the kerb. Hostile and intimidating, this was 30mins before kick-off, not a last minute rush, and the ensuing crush including supporters being manhandled and jostled, only served to emphasise how poorly Scottish football treats its lifeblood. A serious incident was only avoided when the police line was forced to move back to allow well-meaning punters, to come back off the kerb as there just wasn’t enough room. Ah, the matchday experience.
At Rugby Park and Easter Road, there was serious crushing outside the ground caused by the erecting of barriers, which force the supporters down a narrow chute on the entrance road to the ground and then out beyond to disperse at the turnstiles. I get it, I honestly do, but it doesn’t work. Some of the worst crushes I have seen are now taking place at these initial ‘pens’ where hordes of people are now being shoe-horned into troublespots, 100 yards away from the turnstile. There’s nowhere else to go. At Kilmarnock, when we eventually managed to negotiate our very own Pamplona, we were faced with 16 turnstiles, only eight of which were open and of course, another crush. We missed the first eight minutes. The matchday experience.
These are serious incidents, due TVin no small part to operational, stewarding and planning failures by the police and the safety authorities that are inadequate at best, and downright dangerous at worst. Inside the ground isn’t much better either, with overcrowding in many away sections a serious issue. Stewards and police either turn a blind eye to what’s going on, or ‘wade in’ causing further mayhem. There has to be a vigilant, proactive, robust response that doesn’t further inflame, but at least does something.
THESE ISSUES INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE GROUND NEED TO BE ADDRESSED BEFORE SOMEONE IS SERIOUSLY HURT. STRICT LIABILITY, MAKING CLUBS AND ORDINARY FANS SUFFER IS AN EASY WAY OUT, BUT IS NOT THE ANSWER.
Let me stress, these situations aren’t happening in isolation they are examples of what’s going on up and down the country every weekend and how normal, ordinary punters are being treated. For two-and-a-half years now I’ve watched this. Safety is being compromised and I refuse to be intimidated or see it swept under the carpet any longer by authorities who can’t tell the difference between the unbridled joy of a last minute winner that briefly spills on to the pitch and an actual pitch invasion. We’re not all to blame. The mindless idiots who throw coins, bottles and missiles during matches, deserve to be punished. Ban them for life, jail them if you have to, but don’t blame me. That’s what strict liability does and it’s no more the answer than banging down the doors of teenage football fans during the night to ask them “who threw that?”
It’s important to put in context that on an average weekend in Scotland only 0.03% of fans cause trouble and yet MP’s, journalists and so called ‘football people’ want to close stands, ban away fans and dictate how we travel to and from games.
Imagine a reporter landing a haymaker in the press box, causing all sorts of mayhem and then the following week the club closing the media section to ALL journalists. Or an MP starting a rammy in the Commons bar (I know, too far-fetched that one) and the next day, the House was off limits to ALL members. Stretching it a little? Maybe, but that’s your relevant analogy to closing a stand or banning away fans for the actions of the mindless few, right there. Punish the fools, the clowns and the idiots who want to misbehave and throw things – they’re very easy to spot at most away games – but don’t punish me. I’m a rational, reasonably intelligent fan who loves the game, but don’t dare demonise me for wanting, like many fans of many clubs up and down the country, to support my team.
Strict liability won’t deter the loonies, but it might just be the final straw for many bread-and-butter punters, who’ve never been in trouble at a football match in their lives.

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