In this season of goodwill, I’m happy to report an outbreak of common sense in the Scottish Government. A few weeks ago, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf decided to ignore intense lobbying and continue the ban on alcohol being sold at football matches.
When I first saw the proposal to reverse the ban, I was surprised to say the least. Was I the only person who remembered the bad old days and just how awful they were.
The supporters of reinstating booze at football were for the most part the usual suspects. The Scottish Football Association, with money to make, were predictable champions but when I saw former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill backing the change I was stunned.
Now let me say this loud and clear, no politician deserves more credit than MacAskill for standing up to alcohol with all its powerful self-interests and “aye been” excuses. I was witness to his determination and political courage as he stuck to his guns on minimum pricing. It was an important start, perhaps a tipping point in our struggle to establish a new relationship with alcohol, controls on advertising and supply will hopefully follow. I suspect he will get little thanks, but credit where it’s due – his contribution was immense.
With this history, you can imagine my surprise when the champion of progress on alcohol emerged as a supporter of setting the clock back – why?
The main argument for bringing back booze to football is the traditional one – equality, if it’s good enough for rugby, where the ban was lifted – by MacAskill in 2007 – why not football? The innuendo is of course that it’s a “class” decision, rich rugby types being treated differently from working-class football fans.
Well, here’s the thing – rugby and football crowds are different and it’s nothing to do with class or wealth, it is to do with tribalism and the lack of it.
There’s a lot to be said for tribal loyalties to a town or village of a team, it’s a social glue, a common cause to celebrate and stick with through generations of thick and thin. But in football, for a tiny minority, it has a toxic side, sometimes fanned by sectarianism. And, as recent incidents at games prove, it hasn’t gone away.
It means that unlike rugby, football crowds often need to be strictly segregated and heavily stewarded.
But let’s be positive, we are a long way from the dark days when alcohol played such a negative role in our national game.
In that time, not so long ago, upwards of 300 police men and women, not to mention horses, were regularly drawn away from their real jobs to police the big games on the east coast – many more in the west.
Then as now there were teams with particular emnities. It changes of course but back then, apart from the heated derby games, Aberdeen at Hearts was usually niggly and Rangers’ visits to Easter Road were seldom a joy either.
It’s important to say that the travelling support of these teams was usually very different to the home support but whichever team or tribe, alcohol was ever present as the irritant, raising old rivalries to flashpoint. In the 1970s, there were routinely dozens of arrests inside and outside stadiums. As for the unfortunates who lived near the grounds, they were condemned to the fortnightly use of their doorsteps as urinals or worse. It’s very different now, the football stadium disasters of the 1980s brought huge improvements to the design and security of stadiums and the ban on alcohol has helped to make the game safer, more accessible and family friendly.
It’s usually a mistake to seek the answers to present dilemmas in the past. Football and alcohol can be a toxic mix. Keeping them apart is just plain common sense.
Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable