‘Aberdeen are f*** all," snorts Alec as he mops up the spillage from his pint with an already sodden beer mat. "Not even worth talking about on the bus home, it was the media who blew it out of proportion. You should’ve seen it after the game, that’s when it really kicked off, but nobody wrote about that. Just because it’s on TV and in a stadium it makes it a national issue. It’s been happening for years."
We’re sitting in the Nile pub in Glasgow city centre. "This used to be a real Rangers pub," says Alec. "All the players drank here, now it’s all chrome and shopping bags. We just meet here for old times’ sake and because it’s close to the train station and we can ‘meet’ the other fans when they come in."
Alec is agitated, he’s only speaking to me because we have a vague friend in common and I’m buying the drinks. He’s supposed to be telling me why the media aren’t even scratching the surface of football hooliganism in Scotland, but he’s more worried about the Hibs boys who will shortly arrive in town for the Scottish Cup tie.
Behind me, at the far end of the bar, Alec’s mates are huddled together, perched awkwardly on dinky metal stools, huge hands clutching their expensive mobile phones. Nobody is wearing colours. Strips and scarves have been replaced by over-sized Stone Island jackets, loafers and Armani cords. They are not the clothes of the dispossessed; instead they emanate an understated, smart confidence. But the labels and the look are a uniform of sorts. This is the classic outfit of the football casual and, according to Alec, the hooligan’s reign is far from over.
"Look, you can always find trouble at games, you just need to know where to look for it. Everyone was saying Chelsea had a big crew up for the Aberdeen game, that’s why the trouble started, but we don’t need the English to start a fight in our own back yard. We’re capable of doing that on our own. We do it often enough against Hibs and Hearts. I know a lot of Chelsea boys from my time in London and there were a few at Pittodrie, but not enough to start a riot. We have a good relationship with the Headhunters but they only come up big style for the Celtic games so they can give it ‘No surrender to the IRA’. If you ask me the media were just looking to blame the English - as if Scots aren’t capable of starting a fight."
Alec is by no means a criminal mastermind but like hundreds of other football supporters in Scotland he would fall into the most serious, Category C definition of football offenders on the computerised list compiled by the Football Unit of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS).
But like most Scottish football hooligans, Alec isn’t even on the police radar. His closest shave with the law came after a Rangers/PSV Eindhoven tie in 1999 when he was locked up for the night and released the next day.
As a Rangers season ticket holder Alec has kicked and spat and slashed for his club all over Europe. Money’s not short and he goes to all the away games in Scotland and on the continent. The only real difference is these days they drive to the away games, the trains are too unreliable, and driving allows them to break a few heads at service stations on the way.
Think of football hooligans and most people picture tattooed English yobs rampaging through bustling squares in Europe sending tables flying and shouting hate-filled slogans. But our beloved Tartan Army is not squeaky clean. We may choose to ignore it, but there has been a fair number of ugly incidents involving Scotland supporters.
In Amsterdam last year, before a Champions League play-off, a Celtic fan was shot after a bar-room brawl that provoked a litany of street violence between rival fans all over the Dutch city.
During Scotland’s Euro 2000 play-off against England more than 200 fans of both nationalities were arrested after running street battles in Glasgow.
The spectre of sectarianism also haunts the game. In 1996 Jason Campbell was sentenced to life for the murder of Mark Scott, 16, a Celtic fan whose throat was slit in a random attack.
Indeed records of bloody and violent rampages involving Celtic and Rangers supporters go back as far as the 1908-09 season, when the Scottish Cup was withheld from both teams after two draws and a riot. It was reported that the pitch at Hampden on April 17, 1909, resembled a miniature battlefield after both sets of supporters invaded it.
In the 1970s and 80s, violence between fans of both teams was even more commonplace and a pitch battle between thousands of fans at the 1980 Scottish Cup Final at Hampden led to a clause in the Criminal Justice Act banning alcohol from grounds.
Over the past five years the decline of football hooliganism in the UK has been the subject of many theories: it was the trauma of the Hillsborough disaster, some say, or the widespread use of ecstasy, or the gentrification of the game. If not that, it’s down to Nick Hornby. The truth is the urge to scrap with another football mob hasn’t been entirely removed from the football fan’s psyche. The police, however, have become better at stopping it.
Since the late 1980s and the advent of all-seater stadia, CCTV cameras and improved crowd control, violence between rival gangs inside football grounds has certainly become unusual. Now, fighting is more likely to break out in train stations, motorway services, pubs and city centres. Every Saturday, up and down the country, the two camps - hooligans and police - are busy planning what has become a cat-and-mouse game. Figures on football hooliganism released last year by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) actually show a slight increase in football-related violence across Britain and back up the fact that real hardcore hooligans are more likely to cause bother at service stations and railway platforms than stadia. In fact, according to NCIS, almost 85 per cent of all football-related violence took place away from grounds last season.
With closed-circuit television cameras and police in most grounds, more organisation now goes into arranging confrontations between rival gangs - over the internet or by mobile phone - and more often than not the hooligans win the game of cat and mouse.
"CCTV is our biggest enemy," claims Alec. "It’s not difficult for the cops to stand up a GBH or affray charge when they have you jumping on someone’s head on camera. You just work around it, you hit them at service station lay-bys, in pubs. No wonder arrests at grounds are down, you’d have to be pissed or stupid to try anything."
NCIS also claims hooligan gangs are more likely to be smaller than those in the 1970s and 1980s but more committed to violence. Bryan Drew, head of specialist intelligence at NCIS, says: "There’s a nasty, ugly and anti-social element in society that clings to football and just won’t give up. Violence is no longer characterised by the mass terrace affrays and running street battles that we saw in the 70s and 80s. But, like other infections, new strains of football hooliganism are developing that are clever, resilient and increasingly resistant."
NCIS claims many hooligans north and south of the Border are also acting as fronts for other types of organised crime, such as credit card fraud and drug dealing.
The close links between Chelsea and Rangers give football casuals a convenient network of contacts and drug dealing between the two is not uncommon. Through Rangers casuals, the Londoners have an enthusiastic market for their cocaine and ecstasy in Scotland.
The real question is, if NCIS are investigating criminal links between the Chelsea Headhunters and Rangers casuals, what is their strategy for curbing violence north of the Border?
The use of new legislation such as football banning orders, preventing known or suspected troublemakers from travelling to grounds, may help the English but few Scots fans have been served with banning orders despite widespread violence at recent Rangers and Celtic games on the continent. The police also claim their job is being made much harder by the varied kick-off times, scheduled to allow matches to be televised. The move towards midweek games has made policing fans problematic. In an effort to combat this problem, representatives of the Association of Chief Police Constables have been holding talks with football officials to get them to make a greater contribution towards policing costs of matches. Under existing rules, clubs only pay for police that are used in and around stadia. However, they are not liable for paying officers patrolling town centres, railway stations or motorway services where most of the trouble now occurs.
Peter Hilton, chief superintendent of the British Transport police, recently said: "Different kick-off times throughout the week have made policing operations more costly and challenging. Football is no longer about 3pm kick-offs on Saturday afternoons. Television is dictating kick-off times and fans are taking days off in the week, having a drink all day and then travelling to matches. Much of the trouble is away from stadia so we need more resources from football, which is making money from television." The Lothian and Borders Police antihooliganism initiative, Operation Turfed Out, recently saw officers tackling drink-related violence outside Tynecastle, Easter Road and Almondvale - as well as cracking down on supporters travelling to matches by train and bus. But ask fans of any of these clubs to tell you if it stopped the violence between the rival fans and they will simply laugh at you.
The trouble at Aberdeen, although relatively small-scale compared to the recent trouble south of the Border, clearly gave the police a fright. According to one Strathclyde Police detective, concerns are high that the casuals are making an unwelcome comeback. He says: "We are detecting more incidents around the grounds and that gives us real concerns for big matches like the Old Firm derbies. I don’t think we can afford to be complacent as history tells us violent incidents between football fans can spill over into real tragedy. With football more of a family game than ever it’s only a matter of time before real innocents get caught up in the trouble."