AFTER waiting 114 years, Hibs fans saw their celebrations overshadowed by scenes of violence, writes Brian Monteith
Two instances that I witnessed before Saturday’s Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Hibernian summed up the good and the bad of what afflicts Scottish football but does not attach itself to rugby or any other sport.
The first was when my wife and I, together with my sons and a few douce upstanding Edinburgh figures, were sitting out on the lawn of a Glasgow hotel finishing our beers minding no-one’s business other than our own. It was then that three coaches of Rangers supporters parked immediately outside, and the contents spilled out on to the street and we became the subject of some chanting and taunts.
One gentleman in particular, while holding the hands of his young sons, issued a tirade of filthy abuse at us with some arm pumping thrown in for good measure. Initially he appeared oblivious to the example he was setting his children, or at least I like to think he was. Maybe he was actually quite proud of himself, he certainly seemed so as he strutted off.
Some 20 minutes later, as our group walked up the segregated route to the stadium, there was a Hibs supporter in a wheelchair who was needing assistance to get out of it and on to his crutches, but his friends were having difficulty. Suddenly a lone Rangers supporter, who must have taken the wrong route and was walking the opposite direction, stopped at the scene and immediately helped the disabled Hibs fan get out of the wheelchair.
From hateful abuse to compassionate help; there is much good in the behaviour of Scottish football followers, but there is still too much of the old-style mindless machismo that is fuelled by ignorant sectarianism. Once the Cup final kicked off, the latter was soon to dominate.
Before the first ball was kicked there were flares set off at the Rangers end, an instance that in itself would normally be enough to justify an inquiry into security procedures, were it not to be overshadowed by the events after the final whistle.
The football match was a spectacular advertisement for Scottish football. It had an early goal from the underdogs Hibs, which ensured the match would have to open up, and it did. It was end-to-end for most of it, there were goal-scoring chances galore and the behaviour of the players was exemplary, being competitive but not dirty.
For Hibs supporters like myself, there was a belief that if ever they could finally break the hoodoo of not winning the Scottish Cup for 114 years defeating Rangers on this occasion was their best chance. They had beaten their rivals earlier in the season and had been playing fixtures while Rangers had a forced lay-off once the league games had ended. Such hope was tempered, however, by the knowledge that Hibs have a habit of losing big matches in the last few minutes, if not seconds, coining the phrase to have “Hibsed it”.
Throughout the game the Rangers sections of the stadium regularly sang their traditional songs of hate. I say that with every intention for they are not sung in the spirit of folksy Presbyterian camaraderie or nostalgia, but are hurled at opposing supporters irrespective of their beliefs as a taunt and a statement of group superiority. It is their group hate that makes them the most hated team in Scotland despite, as I have already noted, the individual kindness of people who display genuine humanity without any asking.
So it was that Hibernian, losing 2-1 with ten minutes to go, came back to score two late goals, with the winner two minutes into stoppage time, and created Hibsteria that was to overflow and distract from their finest hour.
There can be no excuses for running on to the pitch. It just should not be done. It should be the hallowed turf that only the players and officials grace. When a few are allowed to do so then others will follow, and it was here that there was a significant failure in security and policing.
Serious probing questions have to be asked of the commands given by the police to the stewards and their own officers. Why, with five minutes to go, were significant numbers of police not deployed around the perimeter of the pitch to deter any invasion that might happen from the supporters of either team? I go to enough football matches to know this is often the procedure where tensions are running high. I saw no evidence of such a precaution on Saturday.
Indeed, it has been reported to me from a witness who knows his policing that rather than make an attempt to stop the thousands of fans going on to the pitch, the police advised the G4S stewards to let fans through – and how they did. More in celebration than with any malice, but with such numbers there were always going to be some louts who would want to taunt the Rangers fans at the other end, and worse, shove and assault Rangers players.
This outcome cannot be doubted, I have seen the videos and it brings shame upon the team I love. There can be no condoning of such violence and no reasoning can excuse it. The culprits should be identified and they should face the severest penalties available to the courts with the clubs backing them up with lifetime bans.
I witnessed thugs fighting each other while police officers adjacent simply stood and watched. I saw young women putting their children in danger by taking them on the pitch for selfies, as if it was a Sunday school picnic.
Examination of the whole sorry episode by the authorities should not just focus on the disgraceful behaviour of some football supporters, but ask how it was allowed to escalate into such a situation. Why, for instance, did it take so long for the pitch to be cleared – which only began to happen after Hibs supporters started chanting “off, off, off” to their fellows? Do we now have a police force that is so governed by health and safety that it allows public disorder to occur rather than intervene to prevent it? And who is going to conduct the inquiry into the performance of the SFA, whose oversight needs to be reviewed alongside that of the police and stewards?
Only the justice committee of the Scottish Parliament has the ability to act quickly and impartially and such an inquiry should be placed on its agenda as soon as it convenes.