Chris Marshall: Football act looks set to go but shameful problems remain

The zeal with which the Scottish Government introduced the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has recently been supplanted by a desperation to justify its existence.

Labour MSP James Kelly looks set to succeed with a repeal bill to scrap the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act
Labour MSP James Kelly looks set to succeed with a repeal bill to scrap the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act

Twice last week, SNP minister Annabelle Ewing was accused of misrepresenting the views of others in defence of the controversial legislation which, if nothing else, has succeeded in bringing clubs, fans and political opponents together – to support its repeal.

Ms Ewing drew the ire of Celtic and later Edinburgh University academic John Kelly by suggesting both parties broadly support the act when the opposite is true.

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In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, which is seeking views on the repeal of the legislation, the legal affairs minister cited Celtic chief executive Peter Lawell, Dr Kelly and Paul McBride QC – who died in 2012 – as those who have given their backing to the controversial legislation.

Celtic said it was “extremely disappointed” the club’s views had been misrepresented, while Dr Kelly expressed “dismay” at the use of comments from a 2011 BBC interview which he said had been taken “out of context”.

It’s not hard to see why the Scottish Government struggled to find a supportive quote because there is very little support for the legislation.

It now looks almost certain that it will be scrapped when a repeal bill brought forward by Labour MSP James Kelly is put to the vote.

But while the legislation looks set to disappear, the same cannot be said for the problems which have dogged our national game for decades and left a silent majority of fans thoroughly scunnered.

The Scottish game is no different from many other European leagues where a vocal minority continue to wallow in racist, homophobic and sectarian attitudes redolent of a previous century. But where it differs is the apparent unwillingness to act.

Following trouble at the 2016 Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Hibs, justice secretary Michael Matheson raised the prospect of introducing strict liability, which sees clubs held responsible for the behaviour of their fans and can lead to point deductions, games played behind closed doors and, more commonly, fines.

Scotland’s football clubs, puffed up with an untouchable arrogance, shrugged of the suggestion as if it were an empty threat.

Indeed, it’s unclear whether Holyrood could compel Scottish football’s ruling bodies to introduce strict liability even if it wanted to. What is clear, however, is that strict liability works well elsewhere and in European competition, with both Rangers and Celtic subject to fines for the behaviour of their fans in recent years.

Scottish football has much to be proud of: pro-rata attendances are among the highest in Europe and our game retains a charm and eccentricity long-since swept away in England by the injection of foreign billions.

But there remains a rancour which has been enabled by social media and given a new sense of purpose by the unwanted Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Strict liability is likely to be just as unpopular if foisted on the game by parliament.

With the clubs reluctant to change, the impetus for its introduction has to come from supporters. It’s time for decent fans to stand up and say enough is enough.