Late last night, I re-read the article I wrote yesterday on the Ibrox ultras and their behaviour in Dundee. Then I re-read Dundee’s statement. That made me go back and read the statements from Motherwell, and a couple from Aberdeen about their own fans. Hearts have issued statements this season as well.
It is clear that the coming summit between Scottish football’s leaders, the police, the safety authorities and the government was arranged some time ago; it is not a consequence of the Dens Park incidents.
It has been long planned and that raises an interesting question.
Do Celtic know something we don’t about that meeting?
About how it is going to go?
About what will be discussed at it?
It’s obvious having read Dundee’s statement and those from Aberdeen and other clubs, including Motherwell’s in the aftermath of our game there, that people want more than just pyrotechnics on the agenda … and I understand why.
Does the away match experience, such as it is, feel safe right now?
It’s become a bit of a rabble, a bit of a nightmare in places. If Police Scotland are more and more seen to be getting heavy handed it’s because policing football matches here is becoming increasingly difficult and complicated.
It’s not getting any better either.
Clubs are reporting more and more troubling incidents involving their own fans and others. This is a trend in England as well, so it’s not wholly limited to Scotland … but as I always tell people in situations like this, we can waste a lot of time looking over the garden fence or we can tend to our business at home.
It looks as if the general mood amongst Scottish football’s stakeholders, and I include in there the fans who just want to go and watch their teams, is that matters have come to a head and that something’s got to give.
Football is doing a lousy job of relying on fans to police themselves; that’s very evidently not happening. So, change is in the air.
The incident at Dens puts the Ibrox ultras on a collision course with their club; that’s a fact. But here’s another fact which needs to be put out there.
There are a lot of our fans who believe that The Green Brigade will make peace with Celtic and be back in the ground before long. I say to them “don’t hold your breath”, because my understanding is that this is for real and there’s no going back.
They aren’t for changing their behaviour. That much they have made 100% clear, and Celtic is no longer willing to tolerate that behaviour. They’ve made that equally plain. Even if pyro were the only issue, that’s the subject up for debate at the summit, and the Green Brigade stance on this is actually moronic. It has no grounding in reality at all, none whatsoever.
I listened to a podcast last night where a Green Brigade member spoke at length, and some of what came out of his mouth was delusional nonsense, and the more I listened the clearer it became that these people operate in a parallel reality to this one.
When talking about pyro he made the ludicrous suggestion that they were “willing to work with the club” on it … and they expected the club to go along with that.
Its use in a stadium is a criminal offence.
The law of the land only changes via the parliamentary process and you could not get one single vote in favour of it. Not a single one.
In fact, as if to prove that, the laws on it in Scotland were recently tightened to give the police greater enforcement powers.
Yet he was suggesting that Celtic conspire with them to break the law. He then had the brass neck to say it’s the club that lacks credibility on the issue.
Even if the club was inclined to have such discussions, if the club isn’t also willing to break the law – and violate its corporate charter by acting illegally, making the directors liable for criminal prosecution – then the discussion is over before it even starts.
So, theirs is not a credible proposal in any sense of the word. There’s not a grey area here, no wiggle room to be had. The club is right, they are wrong, and Celtic cannot take any other position.
But more and more, it seems likely that the subject of the summit meeting will be fan behaviour in general.
Not just pyro but all of it.
And I wonder if it’s a coincidence that it’s coming alongside the decision on away allocation guarantees – a fight which got much, much harder, if not actually unwinnable, in the past two weeks. I think we’re heading for something major, something that radically alters the ground under our feet.
A year ago, I would have said Strict Liability wouldn’t have got any more votes amongst the clubs than the use of pyro in stadiums would have got in the Holyrood Parliament.
But that was then and this is now, and I suspect football is coming around to the idea and the grim realisation that if they don’t then the Parliament will impose it on them.
It must be apparent to Celtic that domestic football Strict Liability of the sort they have in Europe would put our club in the gravest peril if we have fan ultra groups who simply refuse to toe the line and would demand that the club simply ignore such regulations if they were put in place.
As Celtic cannot do that, we are facing the very real prospect of the Double Whammy; a fan group which gets us sanctioned and then blames the club because it won’t fight those sanctions, although doing so would so only make matters worse.
I’ve long debated this subject, and one of the people whose opinions on it I most value is Phil Mac Giolla Bhain, who clearly expressed his concerns over The Green Brigade back in 2017 when they got the club sanctioned for events at Linfield.
He has been a vocal critic of their political posturing from the start, and long believed that the club was making a mistake in putting its trust in a fan group whose activism amounted to playing dress-up on issues which are deadly serious, and taking a simple-minded view on matters that were actually highly complex and nuanced.
It’s always been clear to me that most Republicans who fought in the armed struggle regard armchair revolutionaries in the same way the veterans of World War II regard with contempt those on the right who claim the mantle of patriotism and who think war is a game of toy soldiers.
In the Irish War of Independence, the IRA brought the British government to the negotiating table by killing individual members of the security forces, one on one, up close and very personal. That wasn’t a game, it was traumatic stuff, for those on both sides of the guns.
“This is real over here,” Phil once said to me.
Real. Experienced in the raw by those actually living there, people who regarded the whole conflict as something ugly and wanted nothing more than to live in peace.
The Green Brigade wilfully opened those scars in Linfield to nobody’s benefit, and did so by putting our club’s Irish manager at the centre of their clumsy attempt at point scoring, displaying his picture in a mock-up of the old IRA “sniper at work” sign.
In terms of the UEFA disciplinary case, he wrote at the time that,
“When I think of their thought processes and the likely consequences for Celtic, I am left with only two conclusions: the banner chaps DIDN’T see this disciplinary case coming when they displayed the banners or they DID this see this coming, but they didn’t care what sanction would be imposed on the club.
“If it is (1) then Celtic Football Club has a serious problem. However, if it is (2) then Celtic Football Club has an even more serious problem.
“The supporters of the banner fraternity will scoff at the concerns of the “PLC Board”. In doing so those folk are perilously close to the club/company dichotomy that they rightly sneer at when it is stated by a customer of Sevco. “
He should get a Cassandra Award for that.
Phil Mac Giolla Bhain saw a day like this coming a mile down the line.
He and I have the same taste in movies so he’ll understand when I say that in some ways he’s been the Knight Ridder of this debate, talking sense on it when others still thought that this was all just some silly bhoys high jinx.
It was never that. Even I was late to the party and only started to worry when the widespread use of pyro became a big concern.
The fact of it was not obvious to most people but the consequences should be. It doesn’t take a genius to work out how Strict Liability in Scottish football could place us in the dock with ever more regularity.
I know through long conversations with Phil that he and I were once of the view that Celtic would have nothing to fear from Strict Liability; once more, that was then and this is now. I think we’d both have grave concerns at this point.
That risk is now walking up the garden path, and it’s not even difficult to see how we might wind up with it shoved through the letterbox.
In fact, I’ll give you a simple, and likely, scenario right now.
If I were advising the Scottish Government on this – and let’s be honest, they have much smarter political strategists than me in their employ – I would propose a version of Strict Liability so extreme, but so coached around the concept of “protecting the ordinary fan” that it would garner widespread political support.
I would use that as the big stick. With it likely to pass into law, I’d then force football into coming up with its own version … and at that point I’d take mine off the table and let them get on with voting for theirs.
And do you know what football’s version would look like? Republican singing would be punishable. Sectarian singing would be punishable. There would be prohibited flags. There would be prohibited chants.
There would be a sliding scale of punishments ranging from fines to points deductions to stadium closures.
And anyone who thinks those proposals would not be widely acceptable to clubs across the country … well you are seriously mishearing the mood music.
Read the forums of these clubs.
Read the statements from their boards.
Read Motherwell’s statement after our last visit there.
Read Dundee’s from yesterday, it is a raging, furious, “no more of this” message that nobody anywhere in our game should be ignoring.
If you asked those clubs if there should be Strict Liability, I think they’d vote for it in two seconds flat.
After that, all this would take is those in favour having the required votes. There are clubs who might not even vote for it because they are concerned about away fans; clubs might vote for this because they’ve lost control of their own supporters and the threat of those sanctions might be all that brings them back into line.
It could happen. It could easily happen, and those who opposed it could cry and scream and holler to their hearts content; it’s as I wrote in the Cicero piece the other day when I quoted Cato’s speech to the Senate; “When the city is taken, no power is left to the vanquished.”
Those who would demand that we “ignore” sanctions or “refuse” to accept them would only be digging us a deeper hole.
And once its passed, once it’s on the books, it will never be removed.
It will be a permanent fact of life in Scottish football, and it will change the way we experience the game.
I am not in favour of it, I could not make that clearer if I tried.
I merely recognise that it is a growing risk that every stupid act in the stands brings us nearer to, and the last two weeks have inched us closer to it than at any time since the issue was first raised.
The events at Dens, as I said yesterday, were so spectacularly over the top, and thus stupid, that they have put the issue in the public square like never before.
The pictures of that will be the first thing club representatives, police, politcians and safety officials are shown when that summit begins.
And perhaps that summit is part of the reason that Celtic has brought this matter to a head, now, to prepare us for the consequence of such a vote or in a final demonstration short of it that the clubs can, in fact, get their houses in order.
Either would be an understandable motivation, because although people will scream that I’m fearmongering they need to listen to the drumbeat all around us.
The threat is real. In fact, it is imminent.
Those in favour of Strict Liability might not like the analogy, or think that it better sums up those who want to light flares and assault stewards and invade the pitch … but I’m going to use it anyway; the barbarians are at the gates folks, and unless we deal with our issues they are going to storm the citadel.