OPINION: Scottish football needs to embrace its fans’ passion, not knock it back
Scotland’s domestic game is steadily on the rise, and yet there remains disparity between clubs and their passionate fans. Calum Macaulay explores avenues that Scottish football could take in order to build a greater rapport with its spectators.
Scottish football never tends to stray too far from criticism, both in the country itself and from further afield, but the domestic product is on the up – the Premiership once again has a genuine title race, in which every point dropped could turn the tide completely. Qualification for European tournaments has increased, with five Scottish teams having a presence in continental competitions this season and, for the first time in seven years, Hamilton Academicals play no part in the country’s top division.
Above all else, however, the passion for our game is arguably the greatest in Europe. In 2018, Scotland had the highest attendances per capita across the continent, with 0.21% of the population regularly spending their weekends in the terraces. Norway and Switzerland came closest in joint-second place with 0.14%. The atmosphere that Scottish crowds can create is special, and yet, for some reason, the higher-ups of our sport seem uninterested in capitalising on this passion. You would be forgiven for thinking that those at the top do whatever they can to make matches as dull as possible for spectators.
The Bernard Higgins saga at Celtic is a prime example of the disconnect between some clubs’ boards and their fans. Celtic had been looking to employ Higgins in a senior security role, however this was largely controversial and was met with numerous fan protests. Higgins was largely involved in the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, a legislation which discriminated against football fans under a guise of combatting Scotland’s problem with sectarian abuse. Higgins oversaw the targeting of football fans, destroying their lives, as working-class men were torn from their families and jobs with charges then often dropped years later.
Both of Celtic’s ultra groups, The Green Brigade and The Bhoys, alongside all fan-led media outlets and more than 220 supporters’ groups penned a letter to the club, detailing their dissatisfaction at the potential appointment of Higgins. Without a reply from Celtic, the ultras took part in a silent protest at matches against Real Betis and Motherwell. In a combined statement the groups requested a meeting with Michael Nicholson, who has since been appointed permanent CEO, and in exchange, the protests would not go ahead. Remarkably, yet unsurprisingly, this was still met with silence from the Celtic board.
Eventually, the club confirmed that Higgins would not be employed by Celtic. However, it still remains a mystery as to why the club allowed the protests to go ahead, especially considering the impact it left on the players, with right back Josip Juranović confirming that the lack of noise from the typically boisterous supporter groups affects the side, saying: “When we came in afterwards, we were speaking about it and how we never really heard them singing. It made a difference. When they cheer, we play better, so hopefully it will come back soon.”
Another example of those in charge choosing to neglect our country’s fans’ passion is Hibernian’s refusal to allow away fans to bring flags to Easter Road with a stick of over one metre in length. While this itself may seem like a minor grievance, it is baffling that the people at the top of our game make decisions like this for seemingly no reason other than because they want to, spiting those who spend their hard-earned money following their team across the country. Decisions like this serve no purpose, and only damage our game, stripping a bit of much needed colour from the stands.
One hindrance that I believe is stemming the development of new groups of ultras around the country is what has been dubbed by the younger generations as “riddy culture”. For every new fan group attempting to recruit members or gather steam, no matter how small the club or how young the supporters are, there will be thousands online that will ridicule and mock their every move. While I am absolutely guilty of having a laugh at some videos that have done the rounds in the past, the constant berating of these groups can have a seriously negative effect on our game as a whole, as people can feel too embarrassed to try and create an attractive atmosphere at their clubs, something which our game desperately needs.
However, this is a societal issue in Scotland, rather than a problem solely within football. Often, anyone who tries something out of the norm creatively or artistically will likely face a very tough time from others looking to put them down. Sadly, as the issue exceeds football, this is unlikely to change any time soon.
Scotland should take a look at how the Scandinavian nations handle their fanfare and footballing passion. Despite being countries of a similar scale to Scotland, we are blown out of the water when it comes to fan engagement. For example, pyro safe zones make for a great match day experience. They enhance the atmosphere inside the ground, while providing some cracking scenes for those watching on television. Embracing something similar could brilliantly market our game and get people taking note of Scottish football in a positive manner, rather than tossing us aside as another low-level footballing nation.
Speaking realistically, pyrotechnics are always going to be a part of Scottish football – no amount of fines will put an end to that. Instead of punishing fans, we should be looking to create avenues for pyro to be used without putting people at risk. Another example of this can be seen across the pond in America, with Orlando City FC having a “smoke device area”, a section of the stadium that allows for safe use of pyrotechnics, thereby giving people the choice to comfortably avoid the pyro if they so wish.
Furthermore, a number of safe alternatives could be encouraged, such as cold pyro, which burn at over 1,000 degrees lower than the more common flares. The lesser temperature also makes them completely legal, with Danish outfit Brøndby FC working together with their fans to create the device. Although the visual result might not completely replicate that of its hotter counterpart, cold pyro could be a step in the right direction and would be something that Scottish football would do well to explore.
Safe standing sections are also a simple way to improve the atmosphere in grounds. Celtic successfully implemented safe standing ahead of the 2016/17 season, which has allowed for greater fan engagement during matches, with the Green Brigade putting on some impressive displays. The standing section inside Celtic Park has also improved the club’s marketability, with clips of the section spreading across social media, leaving plenty of positive impressions. Kilmarnock also installed rail seating in 2019, after a meeting was held between the club and its fans. Able to hold 2,900 supporters, the section is unique in the sense that it splits the East and Family stands at Rugby Park, therefore accommodating fans of all ages. Impressively, it was funded entirely by supporters, organised by The Killie Trust as part of the “Trust in Killie” campaign.
As more and more ultras groups start up at grounds around the country, standing up will be a guarantee. Clubs should be creating a safe environment for their fans to do so, and in such a manner encourage other fans to join in, creating a better atmosphere. The Rangers ultras group, The Union Bears, have had discussions with the club regarding safe standing, however at a recent AGM, in response to a question regarding a report into the scheme, Stewart Robertson’s response was disheartening. He said, “COVID kicked in and, on the back of that, we never actually completed it. It is not something on our immediate radar.”
The “Twenty’s Plenty” campaign was an initiative started by Celtic fans which protested the extortionate ticket prices away fans are subjected to, urging clubs to cap prices at £20. It was quickly supported by fans of other clubs as “Twenty’s Plenty” banners were held up in stadiums across Scotland. Current ticket prices are unacceptable – combined with transport cost, food and drink, and memorabilia like match day programmes, a simple away day can leave the average fan’s wallet seriously hurting. If prices get much higher, we run the risk of out-pricing our fans.
One only has to look across the border to see the consequences of doing so, with games played without passion or atmosphere in the stands as die-hard, working class fans are unable to afford it. Unfortunately for the boardrooms of Scotland’s clubs, Scottish football does not have people travelling from all over the world to view the cinch. We won’t have the luxury of iPads and half & half scarves filling the stands, instead they will lie desolate. Although, depending on how imaginative the board, there may be a banner or two. If ticket prices are capped at £20, there will be an increase in attendances, which could cover the revenue deficit left by the decrease of prices, and a more exciting atmosphere to boot.
Scottish football is blessed with its fans. With all the money in football right now, it is one of the only things left that money can’t buy. Instead of doing what we can to silence, discourage, and spite our match goers, we should be leaning into that market. It is something that can only benefit our game. More compelling games will bring in more TV viewers and ticket sales, which will generate more money for clubs, which will bring better players to our country. We must allow Scottish football to flourish in one of the only ways we have left, in an increasingly passionless game.