Soft on sectarianism? Not us, say SPL

Days after UEFA opened a case against Celtic over alleged ‘illicit chanting’, the SPL revealed it was investigating the club over similar incidents in a match against Hibs three weeks ago. So why the delay, Tom English asks SPL executives Neil Doncaster and Ian Blair

What took you so long to announce that you were investigating Celtic for IRA chanting at the Hibs match last month?

Iain Blair: The question wasn’t asked before. Somebody asked the question and we answered it.

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You announced it three weeks after the event and a few days after UEFA announced their own investigation into offensive chanting at Parkhead. It looked like you were forced into going public. Embarrassed into it.

Neil Doncaster: What happened was that there was a report to the match delegate, the match delegate reported it to us and the SPL are investigating it. That is what happened, irrespective of what people would like to believe happened. We don’t routinely go out and inform the world that we’re carrying out an investigation into any of our clubs.

The SPL looked weak, though. It was a PR horror show. Why didn’t you announce that you were investigating it three weeks earlier?

IB: The risk is that you end up with an awful lot of energy being expended in dealing with something that is not the issue. The issue is what happened at Celtic Park, so the energy and focus needs to be expended on that. For us then to have this PR machine dealing with it, we could spend all day every day dealing with speculative questions from the media. What can we say? Yes, we are investigating the issue. You then have 15 different newspapers asking what are you doing about it. Is that the best use of our time?

It might create a bun-fight but it would send a message out there that you are on top of this. The perception is that the SPL is soft on sectarianism and soft on offensive chanting.

ND: That might be the perception out there. I accept that may be the perception. I don’t accept that it’s the reality at all. That’s a very unfair way of characterising it.

Have you launched other investigations into sectarian or offensive chanting?

IB: Yes.

This season? Last season?

IB: Both. There’s probably been something like 65 games so far this season and I haven’t checked but I imagine that there has probably been three or four different occasions where there have been reports coming through on events that happened at games. I’ll need to check and get back to you.

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But nothing ever happens, does it? You are controlled by the clubs so nothing is ever going to happen.

IB: It depends on what you mean by nothing happens...

No announcement that you’re investigating, no detail of who or what you are investigating, nobody found guilty of anything. Ever. Despite the repeated evidence of our own ears.

IB: We don’t believe in strict liability. The SPL does not think that’s fair.

Strict liability. A club cannot be held responsible for the actions of its fans as long as the club is seen to be doing all that it reasonably can to tackle sectarianism and offensive chanting...

ND. Yes. We have had the debate around this table over many years with the clubs about whether it’s fair to hold a club to account for things that it cannot control. And we don’t think it’s right.

Our rules are all about seeing that a club is doing all that it practically can to avoid unacceptable conduct from its fans.

So if a club can show they are making a bit of an effort, nothing can happen to these clubs or these supporters? UEFA are rubbish but at least they’re trying to do something to change things.

ND: Our clubs need to do all that is possible. Other competitions may take a different approach, they may simply hold a club liable for the actions of its supporters within its stadium. That’s a very, very difficult route to go down. People like to see things in black and white but it’s not the way the world is. There is excellent work going on, particularly at Celtic and Rangers, as regards anti-sectarian education but unfortunately it’s not as newsworthy as negative stories.

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IB: I remember Peter [Lawwell] telling me that himself and Martin [Bain] once went to a schools initiative about the two clubs coming together to go to schools to communicate an anti-sectarian message and they had generated some press interest but all the questions were about player contracts and nothing about the event itself. I don’t know how we change that.

ND: So to have a strict liability approach is not the right way forward. It’s unfair.

So UEFA is being unfair on Celtic? And has been unfair on Rangers in the past?

ND: It’s their competition and I don’t generally give out views on other competitions. They will have reasons for doing things the way they do.

But in this instance, to have strict liability to punish a club even though it has done everything that it reasonably could, I just think that’s wrong.

Ian, is UEFA wrong to pursue Celtic?

IB: Like Neil, I have a difficulty in seeing the justice in that absolute black and white approach that UEFA take. I don’t see that as justice. Sanctioning A for the actions of B when A has no control over B seems unjust.

Hang on, how does A have no control over B? A can say to B, you’ve been warned time and time again and you’re not coming in here anymore. Get lost...

IB: It can do, post hoc.

A has had loads of opportunities and A hasn’t bloody well done it.

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ND: There is a good debate to be had about communication and the reality is that supporters are being banned by clubs who have identified unacceptable conduct. These things are occurring. I’m not sure we are as good at making that clear as we should.

Why would the SPL not announce it? Send a message out there...

ND: That’s for an individual club to do, but there is an appreciation around this table that we should perhaps be more on the front foot about communicating it when it does happen. But it does happen.

Since Celtic are in the dock right now, what about ringing Peter Lawwell and saying “Peter, elements of the Green Brigade are excellent and other elements are causing mayhem with IRA chanting, I would advise you to break them up and disperse them around the ground?”...

IB: I think Peter is reasonably clear on the issues surrounding the GB.

ND: The suggestion that any league tells its clubs how to manage its own supporters is way wide of the mark. I don’t know of any league in the world that believes that it has a role to do that. Our role is to apply the rules that the clubs agree. The rules can always improve, but we are here to apply them.

These rules are terribly open-ended. The loopholes are enormous.

IB: This is where the point made about communication earlier on is a fair one, because where the clubs can identify the perpetrators they do take action. That hasn’t been communicated as widely as it should be. Supporters are ejected and banned and perhaps that needs to be communicated better.

Is this embarrassing for the SPL?

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ND: I’m not in the business of creating headlines. You’ll have to make your own judgment on the fairness of the situation. You’ll have to say it as you see it.

OK, fine. But is it embarrassing?

ND: That’s for other people to judge. We’re here to apply the rules of the competition without fear or favour.

Ian, is this embarrassing for the SPL?

IB: Any misbehaviour round and about football is something I would prefer not to see. I don’t think it adds to the experience. We need to continue to promote a positive match day experience, which doesn’t get reported.

Moving on, your picture is on the back page of the tabloids today.

ND: Flattering, as ever.

Clydesdale Bank are pulling out. Might the negativity of the stuff we’ve been talking about make your life harder in trying to find a new sponsor?

ND: You need to look at the global economic climate. People are suffering. There is a lack of money in the system. But the coverage the SPL gets is wall to wall. We broadcast into over 50 countries worldwide. The reality that any brand associated with the SPL gets great brand value.

But what about the notoriety of some facets of the league. Is there no such thing as bad publicity?

ND: Those are your words.

Give me your words then.

ND: The SPL is renowned worldwide for passion and drama and excitement. That is how it is known.

Passion is a euphemism.

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ND: Passion is passion and that passion results in tremendously exciting, tense, competitive, combative games.

The incident that caused most fascination last season was not players kicking a ball, it was Lennon going for Ally McCoist on the touchline.

ND: Sure.

So it’s not the football that fascinates, it’s the controversy, the poison...

ND: You’re trying to characterise things in black and white again. That’s not the way the world is.

OK Neil, it’s been a grim week, so let’s end with a positive. Why will you get a new sponsor for this league?

ND: The SPL is about passion, drama and excitement, that is the way it is viewed and enjoyed around the world. There is a global economic slowdown, yes, but we have viewing numbers that are up year on year, we have phenomenal exposure. Attendances last year were only two per cent down which is holding up very well in the teeth of an economic slowdown. We have a good news story.