Stewart Regan says that Scottish football has been left under no illusions. It knows it has to weed out troublemakers and bigots or risk losing money as well as losing face.
The SFA chief executive spoke out following yesterday’s annual meeting where members were warned that they need to take a more proactive approach to weeding out unsavoury behaviour in and around football grounds or be prepared to pay the price for not doing so.
Justice secretary Michael Matheson, whose government ploughs millions of pounds into Scottish football annually and has made it clear that could change, addressed the clubs, calling on them to introduce ‘strict liability’ rules. But while there remains resistance to that option, whereby clubs would be held responsible for the conduct of their fans, leaving them open to a range of sanctions including fines, the docking of points and ground closures, there was an acceptance that more needs to be done.
“When [strict liability] came before the members in 2013, it was comprehensively defeated,” said Regan. “We have had discussions since then about how we can improve the situation. A working party was set up after that defeat and we looked at what we might do to strengthen the rules and make them more robust. We have put in place new guidelines and today we have strengthened them even further with a rule that was unanimously put through making it mandatory for clubs to pursue those who engage in unacceptable conduct after the match and identify them where possible and then take appropriate disciplinary action against them. Failure to do that can open the club up to disciplinary action through the judicial process.”
The call for more stringent punishments has grown louder since the Scottish Cup final, where sectarian singing, flares and a pitch invasion and pitch battles brought shame on the game.
Having promised to hold an independent inquiry to investigate any security and risk management failings on that day, Regan announced that Sheriff Principal Edward F Bowen CBE QC has been appointed to chair the commission and report back to the SFA board by 31 July. He added that the compliance officer, Tony McGlennan, has also initiated an investigation into the part played by the clubs.
But it is unclear if all that will be enough to satisfy Matheson, which means that ongoing investment in the game is being threatened. Over £3m has been ploughed into Scottish football in the past couple of years, to improve facilities, and around £1.5m invested in grassroots development by the government and Sport Scotland. “Based on what the government have fed back, that is at risk,” warned Regan.
“The government want us to address unacceptable conduct generally and not just the cup final events,” he added. “The message today was get your house in order otherwise we will come forward with our own proposals.
“Unacceptable behaviour inside football ground is a matter for the football authorities to deal with and we have made progress, but, as far as the government is concerned, it is not moving quickly enough and it is not delivering the outcomes that they would like to see. They want stronger punishments and very visible sanctions and we have got to try to come up with a solution that the members will ultimately vote through.”
He said strict liability remained a no-go area, though, with clubs arguing they have done everything possible within stadiums to discourage people from unacceptable conduct. “And yet it still happens,” said Regan. “But it’s not the fans who would be punished, it’s the club that would be punished if we went down a strict liability route and that’s where they perceive the unfairness.
“What we’ve said is ‘it’s fine telling us you’ve done everything you can before a match takes place’. But that’s still not solving it, so what have you done after the match has finished? You know things didn’t go as you wanted so what have you done? What have you done to identify the individuals? You must know who sits in that seat and must be able to say ‘if he’s doing that we’re not going to let him back’.
“Consultation is the starting point. I think there are a vast number of our member clubs who are also sick and tired of how Scottish football gets dragged through the mud. There are people who desperately want to see changes. But we need to bring the bulk of the membership with us.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who isn’t against unacceptable conduct. But you will find a lot of people who are against strict liability.”