Why we should re-think Scottish football’s alcohol ban

A Scotland fan enjoys a beer at a rugby international match at Murrayfield. Picture: SNS
A Scotland fan enjoys a beer at a rugby international match at Murrayfield. Picture: SNS
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It’s about time Scottish football fans were treated like adults and the majority not punished for the actions of a few, writes Andy Harrow

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The alcohol ban isn’t stopping people drinking before and after games; it’s just pushing them to bars and restaurants in the surrounding vicinity.

I had a pint at the football last Saturday. I drank it in concourse underneath the terracing, where a craft ale festival was in full swing. People stood chatting and watching the other scores roll in on a television screen hooked to the wall. A local band played next to the makeshift bar.

You’ll not be surprised to discover the game was in England rather than Scotland. FC United, the club formed by Manchester United fans disillusioned with the Glazer ownership, had organised a friendly against a similarly anti-corporate club from Salzburg and were making the most of the day.

As I sat there prior to kick-off, beverage in hand, it again struck me narrow-minded the alcohol ban at Scottish clubs is.

Outside of hospitality, I’ve never bought a beer at Scottish ground – the ban was put in place before I was born, following the 1980 Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers, which ended in literal pitch battles. For anyone that remembers that day or – like me – has seen recorded footage, the images are both unpleasant and deeply depressing.

We are almost 37 years on from that dark day. New generations of football fans have been born and grown up; stadiums have been drastically updated; clubs have utilised the internet and live stream fixtures to far-flung fans. Things have changed. We’ve moved on. Yet, a small part of Scottish football has remained anchored to the events of 10th May at Hampden Park.

This issue has been debated at regular intervals since then. Many who’ve spoken up against the re-introduction of alcohol – in newspapers, in Parliament, in the SFA corridors of power – have argued that it would be a return to ‘the dark days of Scottish football’. The unspoken sentiment is that football fans are forever teetering on the edge of lawlessness at grounds. The suggestion is that alcohol is the element to tip us over.

In 2015, the Social Justice Secretary, Alex Neil, argued against a re-introduction mooted by Labour’s Jim Murphy. “We have made a lot of progress so let’s not turn the clock back. Let’s keep with that progress, keep it a family game and if people want to go for a drink after the game then they are free to do so”.

Back in 2013, the former head of the Scottish Police Federation, Les Gray, was quoted as saying “the atmosphere and the attitude at rugby and ice hockey are completely different to the football atmosphere.” As the BBC reported, he said that talk of “bringing back the bevvy” was an example of some fans’ attitude to alcohol. “Some people just can’t get enough,” he noted.

Scotland’s relationship with alcohol is not healthy. According to figures from the NHS, alcohol-related mortality rates are higher in Scotland than England and Wales and, in 2015, 20 per cent more units were sold here than either of those countries. There are serious issues with alcohol abuse and, as someone who volunteers in the local community, I have seen at first hand the impact it has on families.

It would also be misguided to suggest there is no connection between alcohol abuse and football-related violence. There is evidence that domestic violence, for instance, rises after Old Firm derbies. The chaotic scenes at last year’s Scottish Cup Final provided further fuel to the fire of those who believe Scottish football fans can’t be trusted to buy a beer at games.

The authorities, though, are guilty of using worst case scenarios to justify an entire approach.

Who, honestly, could envisage alcohol-related disturbances at Brechin versus Alloa, or St Johnstone against Motherwell? Most games in Scottish football pass by without any semblance of tension between supporters and the opening of alcohol restrictions would, I suspect, be similar to the scenes witnessed at FC United, or any English ground you care to visit of a weekend.

Indeed, in 2014 St Mirren set up a fan zone in the car park outside the stadium where alcohol was sold. By all accounts it was a successful venture. Yet, when some think of alcohol and Scottish football fans, they still only see police on horseback and bloodied men filling the Hampden pitch.

In reality, any re-introduction should rightly take into account the historical flash points. A cautious approach makes sense. Begin a trial below the Premiership; create a tiered system to ensure that booze remains banned for high-intensity fixtures; monitor it closely. It’s not impossible – nor a great risk – for such an approach to be tried.

While removing the stigma from Scottish football fans would be welcome, the financial aspect of a re-introduction is perhaps more relevant to the teams themselves. In a country where ticket sales have a greater impact on club finances than television revenue – as evidenced in UEFA’s 2015/16 benchmarking report – boards should have the option of supplementing their cash reserves with beer money. The alcohol ban isn’t stopping people drinking before and after games; it’s just pushing them to bars and restaurants in the surrounding vicinity.

It’s a far more regular occurrence in England to see a busy concourse an hour before a game than it is in Scotland. Rather than one last rushed pint at a Wetherspoons, many down south will simply make their way to the ground earlier and buy a drink and a pie there. Clubs are currently losing fans to the ice hockey and the rugby – many of whom will never return – and part of the reason for that slow seepage is the match-day experience. Why go to the football – where you turn up 10 minutes before kick-off, buy an expensive ticket and are forced to drink Bovril – when you could head to the ice hockey for an early pint in the bar and pay less for the privilege?

Fans have been taken for granted for too long and serving the same-old every week is an increasingly risky strategy for Scottish clubs. For many fans, the compulsion to attend games because they always have is wearing thin. Football is no longer the only show in town and value for money has become a greater factor in considering whether to leave the house for a match.

Introducing alcohol might not work for every club – some won’t be interested and others simply won’t have the facilities to support it – but at least give those that would be keen the chance to experiment.

We shouldn’t pretend that alcohol at games is either perfect or a panacea. It’s won’t suddenly bring hundreds more to stadiums because they can have a Tennents at the game. But it might improve the match experience for those who do go; it might swell the clubs coffers and, with any luck, it might allow Scottish fans the opportunity to prove they deserve be treated like adults.

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