Jim Duffy: Only fair to spare some sympathy for man in charge

Hugh Dallas attempts crouches on the pitch dazed after being struck by a coin. Picture: SNS Group
Hugh Dallas attempts crouches on the pitch dazed after being struck by a coin. Picture: SNS Group
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NO training in the world can help senior police officers in the face of boisterous fans at a match, writes Jim Duffy

Senior police officers across the land like to get promoted. The Police service is built on discipline and rank structure. The higher up the ranks one progresses, the more cash one takes home each month. This then leads to bigger pension pots with the Police still having gold-plated final salary schemes.

The higher up the ranks one progresses, the more constables and sergeants call you “sir” or “ma’am”. One gets braid on one’s cap and leather gloves to wear on special occasions. When one reaches the rank of superintendent, one gets a crown on one’s shoulder and reaches the heady heights of demi-god. The superintendent rank means one has made it. The sky is the limit after this. One can proceed to chief super or indeed be elevated to an ACPOS rank. Yep, life is pretty good as a senior officer… all until you get made match commander.

If there is one thing that gets police superintendents and chief superintendents visiting the toilet often it’s the thought of being the boss at a big game. It’s a major cause of irritable bowel syndrome in the senior ranks. It’s the one they’d rather all avoid if they were really honest, as so much can go so wrong so quickly. I have first hand experience of this as I was in the Police Control Room at Celtic Park for the Celtic v Rangers game on 2 May 1999. You’ll remember that particular game, as it was when referee Hugh Dallas was struck with a coin while on the park. Mr Dallas fell to one knee with blood dripping from his head. Let me give you a flavour of what was taking place inside and outside the stadium that afternoon.

It was a sunny day, a bit like last Saturday at Hampden. Fans had been in the pubs and bars drinking heavily. I arrived at the stadium with my gaffer, a sergeant and two others. We took our seats at the controls at 1pm - a whole two hours before the game kicked off. We were responsible for the CCTV and controlling the cops inside and outside the stadium – over 1,000 of them. As soon as we ‘took over’ from the local control room it all kicked off. Fights and disturbances all around the environs of the stadium. Police cars whizzing about the east end of Glasgow and then calling for urgent back up as groups of opposing fans clashed. It was crazy.

Add to this the fans arriving at the stadium by the bus load in a high state of intoxication and in party spirits, and it was all going one way. The match commander arrived, as I recall, about an hour later as was customary then. By this time the noise in the stadium was deafening, so much so that the police controller, a sergeant, could hardly hear the radio and had his ear pressed tightly to the speaker despite also having headphones. The whole build-up to the match inside and outside the stadium was intense and you had the feeling that it was already out of control, albeit this was just what was going on in my gut.

Now… small incidents, a match commander can deal with. We had someone jump off the top tier and fall a few minutes after the Dallas episode. Add to this the minor skirmishes that our reserve officers could deal with and we had a lid on it…just. But, it is at this part of the game, with 15 minutes to go and heightened tensions everywhere, that the world of the match commander can collapse into real mental turmoil. It is this part of the game, where all the reserves are being deployed to create a ‘ring of steel’ around the pitch. And it is this period that every match commander in Scotland, and indeed the UK, has nightmares about. Sure, they get some simulated training at Tulliallan and can read up on how to deal with a pitch invasion. The reality is much different. Remember, you are now a police superintendent – a demi god. Officers look at you and are scared, as with one whip of your pen they could be put out of a job. You are in control, clever, revered and fully trained. And they are looking at you ... for leadership and answers.

But when a bunch of highly charged, emotional, inebriated and, indeed, riotous fans decide to leave their seats and head on to the park to celebrate or fight, only a bunch of Sherman tanks will stop them …maybe. And it is at that point, when you have planned and rehearsed and warned your officers that no-one gets onto that pitch – and it happens – that you see your authority wobble and your career potentially go out the window.

It must be a frightening experience for all involved, hopelessly outnumbered and trying to maintain command in a situation where order has completely broken down at what is supposed to be a family sporting event being beamed out live across the globe. So much relies on fate, goodwill and circumstance and training. And it could all end up in a fatal accident inquiry, Parliamentary committees, internal investigations and, of course, the courts.

So, please spare a thought for the match commander, who like you, is mortal and open to the vagaries of human action. It’s easy to blame and think “well that’s what they get paid for”, but just imagine how he or she must feel in the evening and days after the maelstrom – alone with thoughts of what could have been or decisions made. People condemning publicly and colleagues privately whispering. Alone with the consequences and flashbacks of noise, rampaging fans, players assaulted, flares, children crying, disappointed and disillusioned cops, frightened stewards and police horses deployed. And with no tanks to stop it all.

I’m just glad it wasn’t me…

• Jim Duffy is soon to be Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark