“It’s Not Going Away You Know” was the message this weekend from the pyromaniacs.
Their point was accentuated by the coloured smoke which billowed up and into the air.
I’ve seen a lot in my time, enough to know that when a group of people openly flaunt their contempt for the law of the land that something’s going to give. Either they will give in or the state will.
If they go eyeball to eyeball on this, I know who my money will be on to blink first. As I said in a previous article, this is not an argument that is winnable. It’s as clear a loser as any that I’ve ever seen.
I want you to imagine something with me for a moment.
Imagine those amazing pictures of a full pyro show amongst the fans juxtaposed with one of fans lying unconscious on the concrete.
Or some poor sod in an ICU.
Which is the more consequential “spectacle?”
The day after the notorious Game of Shame, where the chaos was largely confined to what happened on the pitch, the Scottish Government convened a summit. The result of that summit was the Offensive Behaviour At Football Act.
An anti-fan piece of illiberal legislation, rushed through parliament to deal with stuff that had nothing to do with the fans.
So imagine the morning those newspapers pictures are published, those two separate images and one almighty story, the story of how creating “a special atmosphere” at football was allowed to take precedence over the safety of fans.
I assure you of this, and those involved know it too; in that scenario, pyro will be out of stadiums right quick, never to be seen again. Because public opinion will turn so violently than any politician who isn’t rushing to demand harsh measures will feel whiplashed.
This is one of the two possible paths in our future.
The other is that those regulations will come in first, before disaster strikes. I’d rather that. Prevention is what it’s all about, and not just because it will save someone from being seriously hurt or killed.
The reaction to a tragedy will be several magnitudes more serious than anything that a legislature will pass in the meantime.
We can only imagine what really draconian football fan laws look like right now … we would get a first-hand education in them should such a dark day ever come to pass, and there will be barely a murmur of dissent.
Last week, Graham Spiers did a podcast episode on pyro and before it he asked me if I was interested in going on, because I’d written about it some weeks ago.
I wasn’t able to do it because I had some prior commitments.
The panel ended up made up of Dr Tom Smith, who commissioned UEFA’s report on the issue, David Hamilton the ex-chair of the Police Federation and Matthew Lindsay, the journalist, who has written a series of very balanced, very fair-minded articles on this subject which I recommend that every supporter reads.
The voices of the fans were absent from that podcast, so he decided to do a follow up and once again asked me to take part, and I was pleased to do so. The debate was excellent, and not in the least shouty or angry, but passionate and forthright.
And yet, I still feel like a lot of it was parallel universe stuff.
There are two sets of arguments in favour of pyro.
The first are all about the visual experience and what it adds to the atmosphere.
The second set of arguments are along the lines of how it’s here to stay and it’s better to work with fans to find a safe way of doing it, because otherwise … what? It will continue to happen anyway?
Let’s start with the first argument.
The central point of it is solid.
They create colour and atmosphere and look incredible. But as nice as that is, since when does it take precedence over the safety of supporters? Since when do we sacrifice the wellbeing of fans for what looks good? It’s when you consider the consequences that you have to stop yourself and say “Hey wait … what if?”
Yeah. “What if?”
That question should haunt every person engaged in this or speaking up for it. When a family is getting interviewed on the BBC and asks why the fans who do this didn’t consider the safety of other people (or even themselves) what’s the answer to that going to be?
“Yeah but did you see it that night? Didn’t it look amazing?”
I don’t think that’s a good enough answer. How can it be? I cannot believe that such an argument can be the default position for so many people.
The second argument is no better.
It suggests that mass law-breaking should be accommodated and that the answer to it is to “work with people.” As I said on the podcast, this is the debate point we call “the drunk driver only lane on the motorway.”
People want to do it. You will not stop everyone from doing it.
So shouldn’t we seek to find a way that lets those who don’t like the law do what they want without it impacting on others?
When you frame it like that it sounds utterly ridiculous … because it is ridiculous.
The nanny-state argument doesn’t stand up either.
When you buy a set of speakers you get a gel-pack with them.
I have no idea what that is for, or why it is in there, but it carries a warning on it that you should not try to eat it.
Perhaps someone, somewhere, has done it. Perhaps people want to. But that warning is there. There is no law against eating the gel-pack and no-one would ever propose one.
That warning basically says “we’re not advising it. Do it at your own risk.”
But there’s a reason we do not allow the drunk drivers to have their own lane on the motorway.
It’s about protecting other people on the road.
No-one would ever argue that we should allow drunk driving, just as no-one any longer questions seat-belt laws or speed limits. Your right to do what you want and live as you like is not restricted when it comes to eating the left-overs in your speaker box.
It is only really restricted when your behaviour might endanger someone else.
But for the moment, they are right. It will continue to happen.
Yet only as long as the state is minded to tolerate it in some form. That’s not an indefinite state of affairs.
The idea that a group of fans openly breaking the law will somehow force the Scottish Government, the UK legislature and the police into concessions would be funny if it wasn’t also dangerous to the standing of the game.
Those responsible for crafting and enforcing the law know that the spread of this problem will inevitably lead to a tragedy, and that will shift the dial in more ways than one.
The only real question is whether they act before that happens or whether they act after it does.
But mark my words, there will be a reckoning.
The politicians have already started to act, with new legislation on pyro.
It’s the tip of the iceberg. Strict liability will follow unless football gets its own house in order … and I see no sign that it will.
But if a tragedy does come first, the politicians and the media won’t be able to move fast enough to propose action.
The police force will have been vindicated in their dire warnings and they will get every tool that they require to enforce ever harsher laws. That won’t be the nanny state either, it will be a necessary step in dealing with an ever-more serious issue.
There are people in our support who are now openly confrontational when it comes to the police.
I understand the genesis of those standoffs, and it wasn’t pyro.
But in this case the police are only acting as the instrument which upholds the law. Increased police presence is not a separate issue from mass-lawbreaking. It is the consequence of it.
The longer this stand-off continues the heavier the hand will come down.
If the tragedy happens, that hand will hit like it never has before.
It will be a Year Zero event, one of those moments where there is a Life Before This and a Life After It.
We will all be able to tell the difference.
You can listen to Graham’s excellent podcasts on this subject below.