Stephen Halliday: Strict liability would be doomed to failure

Anyone who believes the introduction of strict liability could solve Scottish football’s current spate of crowd disorder incidents simply hasn’t been paying attention in recent years.

Anyone who believes the introduction of strict liability could solve Scottish football’s current spate of crowd disorder incidents simply hasn’t been paying attention in recent years.

As alarming as it was to see St Mirren goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky stunned and shaken by the proximity of a firecracker thrown by an empty-headed member of the Celtic support behind his goal on Wednesday night, there is no credible evidence to suggest that holding clubs entirely responsible for the actions of their followers is effective.

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Those of us who gathered in a media huddle around Peter Lawwell in the departure lounge of Trieste Airport on a December morning back in 2011 would certainly testify to that.

The muttering disapproval of some nearby Celtic fans as their club’s chief executive roundly condemned events at the Friuli Stadium the previous evening provided a depressing indication that the behaviour of a minority will always remain beyond 

Lawwell’s simmering anger on that occasion was directed at those who had let off flares and unveiled a banner declaring “F**k Uefa” at a Europa League tie between Udinese and Celtic. The slogan was a protest against fines imposed on Celtic by European football’s governing body in the previous few years for a variety of incidents.

But just as predictably as Uefa’s Control and Disciplinary Body hit Celtic with another sanction for the Udinese offences, fining them £21,000, so too the presence of strict liability proved absolutely no deterrent in the seasons ahead.

Celtic have racked up another ten fines from Uefa since that night in Udine – five of them for the use of pyrotechnics during away matches at Cliftonville, Dinamo Zagreb, Inter Milan, Fenerbahce and Manchester City.

Given the degree of recidivism among what Lawwell described as the “rogue element” of their support, Celtic have had reason to feel relieved Uefa have so far resisted the option of increasing the punishment to that of a partial or full stadium closure.

But regardless of the severity of any penalty imposed, the grim reality is that there are certain members of our society who will simply never be persuaded to change their conduct, whether in a football stadium or elsewhere.

That is why any moves by the Government to try to force Scottish football to adopt strict liability would be both ill-conceived and doomed to fail.

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In seeking to address this issue, the focus of all involved should surely be on identifying and rooting out the individual offenders, rather than drawing up a potential list of sanctions against clubs which would harm the majority of law-abiding, civilised supporters in this country. Greater investment in higher quality CCTV, as is being mooted by the Scottish Professional Football League, would be a welcome and productive step forward in dealing with the kind of incidents which have been witnessed at too many of our grounds this season.

A rational and considered approach is required, including the ongoing engagement of the Scottish FA, Police Scotland, government officials and anti-sectarian groups. The arbitrary imposition of a licensing system on Scottish clubs by Holyrood, as has been suggested by MSP James Dornan, would be as unwelcome as it is needless.

The onus is firmly on the Scottish FA and SPFL to assume responsibility as there could be a heavy price to pay if the Scottish Government is seen to be taking charge. Both Fifa and Uefa take a dim view of what they regard as “third party” interference in the affairs of their member associations. The Greek FA has been suspended in the past when its government tried to step in and pass laws relating to violence at football matches. It’s a road Scottish football can ill afford to go down.

Unsurprisingly, there is no appetite among Scottish clubs for strict liability. Only three of the 42 SPFL members – Partick Thistle, Queen of the South and Annan Athletic – voted in favour of its introduction in a recent BBC survey.

The majority are right – strict liability isn’t the answer. But neither is the status quo. The time has come for Scottish FA chief executive Ian Maxwell and his SPFL counterpart Neil Doncaster to announce a unified and proactive approach to taking ownership of an increasingly worrying problem.