Andrew Smith: Clubs and authorities could rid Scottish football of sectarianism - they simply choose not to

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Introducing strict liability is the obvious way of trying to rid Scottish football of the kind of abuse directed at Steve Clarke. But, writes Andrew Smith, there’s no chance the SPFL and SFA will do it

It’s not often a 55-year-old man wouldn’t be happy to be made to feel like he was 23 again. It is thoroughly depressing to consider that Steve Clarke was left despairing and full of contempt at this shedding of the years in his psyche at Ibrox on Wednesday night.

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard shakes hands with his Kilmarnock counterpart Steve Clarke at Ibrox on Wednesday night. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard shakes hands with his Kilmarnock counterpart Steve Clarke at Ibrox on Wednesday night. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

The fact that the Kilmarnock manager could have thousands telling him he was a “Fenian bastard” told him that Scottish football, west of Scotland society indeed, hadn’t moved on since he was making his way with St Mirren in the 1980s and hearing anti-Catholic abuse from the Rangers support.

Back then, he also would have heard the “Orange bastard” anti-Protestant epithet being screamed out at Parkhead, with paens to the IRA also given laldy by the home faithful. Just as they were, indeed, when his club hosted Celtic only last Sunday.

Clarke’s damning conclusion is that we are living in the “dark ages” in this part of the world. In truth, when it comes to Scottish football, and aspects of the culture the world of Rangers and Celtic sits within, we are living in a sectarian age without end.

Clarke, the player, left St Mirren for Chelsea in 1987 and spent the next three decades working in England. He returned north just 16 months ago and could therefore bring an outsider’s perspective to the abuse he received at Ibrox, where he forced us to confront what we have allowed ourselves to be inured to.

At the start of this season, I took the conscious decision that I would no longer let sectarianism wash over me at Scottish football games. On a host of occasions since, I have chronicled anti-Catholic abuse from the Rangers support – which was as bad as I have ever heard in the home games with Celtic and Villarreal, with the “f*** the Pope and the Vatican” making an unwelcome return – and the return to the Celtic songbook of regular chanting about “Orange bastards”. Each time that I have written about this, comments have been made claiming that I was guilty of shutting my ears to the contraventions of the other side.

Many colleagues have given up writing about this, not because they are partial or intimidated, but because they feel there is no point. And in many respects, they are right. Nothing ever happens, with the SPFL and SFA either unwilling or unable to act.

It doesn’t help that the Scottish government so badly botched their attempts to address the problems with the hideously bad law of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which sought to criminalise football supporters for singing songs they could go to bars and watch “folk” bands playing.

With the religious-aggravated breach of the peace laws, police had the armoury to clamp down on the anti-Catholic fiestas that Rangers supporters seem to believe is their right to indulge in.

Nuance, and desperate attempts to equivocate, have made clampdowns on the worst of football fan behaviour appear difficult. Celtic have a growing problem that does not match that of Rangers, but they have long lost any right to take the moral high ground. With certain justification, they can play the political card in singing songs that relate to the Irish war of independence. The Boys of the Old Brigade is no more sectarian than Rangers supporters singing Derry Walls, which no one has ever suggested the Ibrox faithful should be sanctioned over. It would be like calling out a club with origins in the United States for singing a song commemorating the American Revolution.

You can state, with good grounds, that singing about armed conflicts of any nature has little place in football grounds. However, this is a side issue to the need to drill down, fall into line with Clarke and place religious intolerance on a par with racial intolerance. Why do we seem so reluctant to draw this link?

In the febrile atmosphere once again enveloping Scottish football as anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant sentiment is given expression, we will wring our hands, throw them up in horror before all going along as before, as Del Amitri once sang. Only in our poisoned world the needle never returns to the start of the song, it is just stuck in a desperate groove.

There is only one means of moving it, of causing modern mores to modulate the melodies within the confines of our football stadiums, and that is to introduce strict liability. No ifs, no buts and yet, crushingly,
no chance. Yet the excuses given by SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster, at the behest of the clubs, as to why this is unworkable have long since been untenable. Clubs cannot talk about themselves as a “family”, as they forever do these days in a toe-curling fashion, and not take responsibility for the actions of those who tuck themselves under their wing.

One of the principal reasons given for not introducing strict liability is that interlopers could be encouraged to cause trouble for rival clubs. That is easily countered and indeed is in the limited version of strict liability that operates in England. It comes into force only for “discriminatory mass chanting”. That ensures that only when you hear thousands of fans from one club indulging in sectarian, racist or homophobic abuse does a club open itself up to possible sanction. In such instances, it should surely be considered ethically bankrupt not to act? And the unforgivable fact is that it would be, if, as Clarke essentially alluded to the other evening, he was a black man having thousands shouting “black bastard” at him instead of “Fenian bastard”.

It would be straightforward to create a tariff for such discriminatory chanting. One clear example would bring a warning. A second such instance would lead to a fine, and a third would result in a club receiving a one-point deduction. If, as was the case on Wednesday, a third offence occurred at a cup game, then this would bring the voiding of any win obtained.

The bottom line is that, were Rangers on their third strike going into the Kilmarnock tie, there is simply no way that thousands of their supporters would have threatened their future participation in the tournament by bothering to abuse Clarke with their team cantering to victory.

Scottish football clubs and authorities have it in their power to rid the game of sectarianism, they simply choose not to do so. That is entitled to make any of us feel, not young again, but infirm and weary. So weary.