Police chief: Scottish football ‘in crisis’ - and repeal of Offensive Behaviour Act is to blame

A leading figure in the Scottish Police Federation has claimed the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) is partly to blame for the rise in disorder at Scottish matches.

SPF vice-chairman David Hamilton has also pointed to the behaviour of players during Sunday’s Old Firm clash between Celtic and Rangers at Celtic Park as a catalyst for what he said was the worst fan behaviour “in 15-20 years” but also believes the decision to overturn the legislation, which took place nearly 12 months ago, has also played a part in the problem escalating. Scotland’s clubs were also in the firing line over stewarding issues.

Mr Hamilton told John Beattie’s BBC Radio Scotland programme: “We have to look at this as a crisis in Scottish football. People are going to turn away from it, they’re going to walk away, and it’s going to continue to be a problem in future. Personally, I believe the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour Act has had an impact, because I think that some people feel wrongly legitimised to behave in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise behave.”

The OBFA was introduced by former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, and passed by MSPs by 64 votes to 57. It received Royal Assent in January 2012, but the Scottish Government faced calls for an early review into the Act, and a group called Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC) was set up to campaign against the legislation. A bid to repeal it was started by Labour’s James Kelly in 2017, and the Act was overturned in April 2018.

A general view of Celtic and Rangers fans during Sunday's Old Firm clash. Picture: PA

Mr Hamilton said: “It’s despairing, the way some fans are behaving in Scottish football. We are seeing an escalation in violence, both in terms of severity and frequency.

“Some of the officers who were working at Celtic Park said it was the worst they’ve seen in 15 to 20 years of service.”

Mr Hamilton revealed that a police horse had recently been retired due to injuries it received while on duty at a football match, while an officer working at Celtic Park on Sunday had a flash-bang thrown at him that “just missed his head”.

The SPF No.2 believes the clubs are partly at fault.

Police detain a Hibs fan who confronted Rangers captain James Tavernier on the pitch. Picture: SNS Group

‘Clubs have a responsibility’

“I think back to the 1980s when Terry Butcher, Frank McAvennie and Graham Roberts ended up in court for inciting the crowd,” he said.

“Obviously that conviction didn’t go anywhere but it’s not far from where we are just now in terms of behaviour. Fans take the lead from the players.

“Players have a responsibility but most important of all, the clubs have a responsibility. They need to set the standards.

Assistant referee Callum Spence needed stitches in a head wound after being struck by a coin. Picture: SNS Group

“The whole game needs to set a standard. Is it acceptable to behave this way? Of course it’s not.

‘Pay stewards more money’

“We’re seeing a lack of stewarding; very, very few numbers dealing with some of the most difficult people - somebody said they’re only getting the minimum wage. Well, pay them more then, and get better quality stewarding.

“It’s not a police issue to deal with this. We’re part of the solution. We will support stewarding but the clubs need to deal with it.

Referee Willie Collum removes a glass bottle from the pitch after it was thrown at Celtic's Scott Sinclair. Picture: SNS Group

“The clubs need to look at who’s actually coming into the stand, what are they doing, and be able to identify them. Everything is very reluctant. We get nothing back from the clubs.”

Mr Hamilton also criticised teams for not upgrading their CCTV systems, singling Hibs out for praise after the Easter Road side improved their facilities after two incidents at matches. But he accused clubs of helping fans to escape identification, adding: “People are hiding behind banners and flags, some of which are being stored in the stadiums by the clubs. It’s absolutely extraordinary.

Alcohol reintroduction “hare-brained”

And he was scathing over suggestions alcohol could be reintroduced to Scottish football, branding the idea “hare-brained”.

He added: “If any nightclub or bar allowed their clientele to behave in the way that some football fans behave they would be closed down. There was this hare-brained idea to reintroduce alcohol to football grounds.

“Some said the game has improved and moved on but the last thing in the world Scottish football needs right now is more alcohol.”

During Sunday’s game, some home supporters entered the field of play to celebrate Odsonne Edouard’s opening goal. One steward sustained leg injuries as she attempted to halt the incursion, while flares were also used by fans.

Mr Hamilton said that player behaviour on Sunday had been “unacceptable”, adding: “It winds the crowd up and perhaps people take a lead from that”.

Rangers pair Alfredo Morelos and Andy Halliday were red-carded for clashing with Celtic captain Scott Brown, whose celebrations in front of the visiting fans at full time sparked a confrontation with Halliday and a large melee involving players and officials from both teams.

‘Sporting authorities need to address players’ actions’

A spokesperson for Police Scotland confirmed they would not be following up on the behaviour of players, adding: “After consulting with the Crown Office and reviewing the circumstances, Police Scotland is content that the actions of players at the Celtic v Rangers SPFL match on Sunday March 31 2019 were in the wider context of a sporting event. The actions of the players involved are for the relevant sporting authorities to address.”

The disorder is the latest in a long line of unpalatable incidents at Scottish matches, including:

• A coin being thrown at former Hibs head coach Neil Lennon during an Edinburgh derby at Hearts’ Tynecastle Park stadium

• Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal being attacked by a visiting supporter during the same game

• An assistant referee requiring stitches in a head wound sustained after a coin was thrown at him during a Livingston-Rangers match

• A coin thrown at Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos during a St Mirren-Rangers match at the Simple Digital Arena in Paisley

• A glass bottle thrown at Celtic winger Scott Sinclair from a stand housing Hibs fans during a Scottish Cup match between the two teams at Easter Road

• St Mirren fans accused by their own club of “spitting and throwing coins” at a visiting fan who had fallen unconscious at a Scottish Cup match between the Buddies and Dundee United at the Simple Digital Arena#

• Sectarian abuse directed at Kilmarnock striker Kris Boyd by Celtic fans, while a coin was also thrown at the player by the visiting supporters during a Kilmarnock-Celtic match at Rugby Park

• Sectarian chanting directed at Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke by Rangers fans during a Scottish Cup match at Ibrox

• Reports of sectarian chanting directed at Rangers manager Steven Gerrard by Aberdeen fans during a Scottish Cup match at Ibrox

• Reports of coins being thrown and sectarian singing during a Hearts-Celtic league match at Tynecastle in late February

• A Hibs fan entering the field of play to confront Rangers captain James Tavernier during a Ladbrokes Premiership match between Hibs and Rangers at Easter Road

In the hours after the match, a spate of related incidents in Glasgow city centre and East Kilbride took place.

A 47-year-old Celtic fan is currently fighting for his life after being stabbed in the neck during a fight between rivals supporters in the Merchant City on Sunday evening. Police are treating the incident as attempted murder.

Officers confirmed two other men were also stabbed in “serious assaults” on the same day.

In a separate incident, a 24-year-old man was arrested and charged with assault and carrying a knife, after a flashpoint in East Kilbride’s Maxwell Drive saw another man assaulted.

In Coatbridge, nine people were arrested and released without charge after a “large-scale disturbance” at a pub, while an unconfirmed number of people were also arrested in nearby Kirkwood.

Strict liability?

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has refused to rule out legislating for strict liability, which would see clubs held responsible for the behaviour of supporters.

UEFA already operates strict liability in the Europa League and Champions League competitions, with Celtic, Hibs and Rangers all fined by European football’s governing body over fan disorder in the last 12 months alone.

SNP MSP for Glasgow West James Dornan is leading a drive to bring in strict liability, and believes events at Sunday’s match have strengthened his bid.