Tom English: Celtic’s unsavoury Amsterdam night

THE conviction of so many Celtic fans that few, if any, of their number did much wrong in Amsterdam appears to be unshakeable and typical of a support defending their own.
There were unsavoury scenes in Amsterdam city centre after the game between Ajax and Celtic. Picture: SNSThere were unsavoury scenes in Amsterdam city centre after the game between Ajax and Celtic. Picture: SNS
There were unsavoury scenes in Amsterdam city centre after the game between Ajax and Celtic. Picture: SNS

To many, the narrative could not be simpler. They were minding their own business in Dam Square last Wednesday when Ajax fans came at them. The police then began to clear them out of there with an aggression that overstepped the mark.

A local ned stole a Celtic flag and ran away. Celtic fans ran after him. There was a fight. And another fight. The police got heavy. Plain clothes cops got stuck in with abandon. Supporters got shunted down side streets. Innocents got hurt. Shame on the Amsterdam police and their unwarranted force. Shame on the undercover guys and their extreme behaviour. Shame on Ajax fans. Shame on the media. Shame on everybody, but no shame on the Celtic fans involved in the fighting? None at all?

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Some of the Celtic narrative is undoubtedly true, but some of it appears one-eyed and a little ridiculous. Innocents got caught up in the violence, no question. The local police steamed in, no doubt about it. There is footage of an undercover police officer repeatedly sticking the knee into a Celtic fan while some other plain clothes guys hold the Celtic fan still. It’s excessive. Anybody can see that. If the point of the exercise was to restrain and arrest a troublemaker then why knee him and punch him after they had him under control?

But that’s only one side of the story. There is another side and part of it is going to take place in an Amsterdam court, where six Celtic fans are going on trial on 21 November charged with violence towards police. If found guilty they are looking at a maximum prison sentence of four years.

Let’s be clear. You can point the finger in all directions here, but a bunch of Celtic fans – we don’t know how many – behaved like yobs on Wednesday night. Some very serious charges have been made against the six, with lesser charges brought against 22 other Celtic fans who were arrested among the total figure of 44 arrests. The 22 have been released with fines of upwards of ¤500. Four of the six have been bailed pending trial. Two remain in custody.

An argument of self-defence and provocation is put forward by some Celtic people for what happened, but where’s the self-defence in chucking bottles and cans at Dutch police? Where’s the self-defence in a gang of these thugs chasing after an undercover cop – even if they didn’t know he was a cop – and setting about him? Where is the self-defence in the YouTube video of that same attack with bottles being chucked at a passing tram? If a Neanderthal Ajax supporter throws a bottle at a Celtic fan, what do we say about the Celtic fan who picks a bottle and throws one right back at him? Is he not a lout as well?

Decent fans tried to get away from these scenes and, it seems, some found their route blocked. You have sympathy for the true innocents. But some stayed and some got involved in the violence and some got arrested.

Celtic fans have a fine reputation in Europe for their travelling support but some of the stuff that went down in Amsterdam was shameful.

Too many fans travelled without tickets and with little hope of getting one. That’s no crime, but it does tend to raise alarm bells if your intention is to congregate, and drink, in massive numbers in the middle of a city that has a history of football violence. It wasn’t the centre of Disneyland they occupied in mid-afternoon with their bottles and their cans. This was an area that has seen trouble many times before and that had, according to a few witnesses, a bit of a malevolent air in the run-up to kick-off.

Amsterdam can be a dangerous place on big football nights, especially if your intention is to stay in Dam Square drinking your head off all day. To set the scene, Celtic supporters arrived into a city that is becoming almost as infamous for its hooligans as its hookers. On Tuesday night a gang of hooded lunatics set about a pub in which Celtic fans were having a drink. It was thoroughly unprovoked. They launched their attack and it’s clear for all to see on YouTube. The reaction was one of shock, but it shouldn’t have been. You go to Amsterdam for a major football match and it will usually kick off somewhere, somehow.

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These guys held up a banner with “Fenian B******s” written on it. An attempt to goad the visitors, just as they had tried to goad them in Glasgow a fortnight before, when Ajax supporters ripped up seats at Parkhead, the club later apologising for the thuggish behaviour of some of the visiting nutters. This was only a few weeks after a group of Ajax heavies attacked some AC Milan supporters in Amsterdam and only a month or so after the mayor of Eindhoven banned all Ajax fans from visiting his city for fear of violence between casuals from Ajax and PSV.

Last October, when Manchester City were in town for a Champions League tie, there was more hooliganism, local police laying the blame squarely at the door of the Ajax fans, with the odd exception. In February, Amsterdam police arrested 129 people after fighting broke out between fans of Ajax and Manchester United. A few short months before that, a Dutch Cup match in Amsterdam had to be abandoned when an Ajax fan ran on to the pitch and tried to assault the goalkeeper of the visiting side, AZ Alkmaar. It was a scene reminiscent of another day in Amsterdam many years before when hundreds of Ajax fans invaded the pitch at an under-21 game in an attempt to get at Feyenoord’s Robin van Persie.

We could go on. Trouble in Amsterdam when Dinamo Zagreb went there. Trouble in Amsterdam when Olympique Marseille went there. Trouble in Amsterdam when Feyenoord went there. Trouble in Amsterdam when Hamburg went there. There is a common denominator in all of this and it is Amsterdam. If the local police are at a heightened state of alert when large groups of booze-laden football fans gather in the city centre then it is no wonder. They’ve seen so many fights – and riots – involving Ajax fans and fans of visiting teams that they can smell another one coming a mile off. Celtic might say that the very people who were supposed to be easing the mayhem merely just added to it. That’ll be played out in court soon enough.

For now, Celtic are gathering testimony from those who were there and who saw what went on. It’ll be interesting to see how many of the responses attach any blame to their own. Quite honestly, if some cannot bring themselves to admit that a number of Celtic fans did some disgraceful things last Wednesday – provoked or not – then you have to wonder about the integrity of the rest of their account.

On the pitch, and off, Celtic have enjoyed some joyous nights in European football. Amsterdam was at the other end of the spectrum.