Comment: Accident waiting to happen if Scottish football fails to deal with fan misbehaviour

There was no shortage of controversy on the pitch this week when the Capital clubs crossed swords with the Old Firm, but calls for ‘something to be done’ should focus on what was happening off the pitch instead.

Flares were thrown onto the pitch near goalkeeper Matt Macey during Wednesday’s match between Hibs and Rangers at Easter Road
Flares were thrown onto the pitch near goalkeeper Matt Macey during Wednesday’s match between Hibs and Rangers at Easter Road

Things are going from bad to worse. Flares thrown onto the pitch by fans at Easter Road on Wednesday forced the game to be temporarily halted while they burned out. Police say they are investigating.

And a 24-year-old man has been arrested in connection with items thrown onto the pitch at Celtic Park on Thursday, when Hearts were the visitors.

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Hearts winger Barrie McKay was struck with a plastic bottle thrown from the crowd as he was taking a corner in front of the Celtic fans. Several other items, including paper drink cups, were also thrown in the player’s direction, and further police enquiries are ongoing.

All of this comes a few days after Livingston goalkeeper Max Stryjek was pelted with snowballs by Rangers fans and just a few weeks after glass bottles narrowly missed Hibs players as they celebrated a goal against the same team in the cup semi-final at Hampden. Police enquiries into that episode are still “ongoing” too.

Hibs officials also held “discussions with the relevant people at Hampden and the SPFL” about missiles allegedly thrown at their fans at the same match.

McKay has talked candidly about asking the referee for protection at Celtic Park on Thursday. He says he was told that extra stewards were in position, but that didn’t stop the missiles from coming.

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Depressing stuff indeed.

The level of protection being offered to players in Scotland is clearly falling way short of what should be expected. What will it take before ‘something is done’? A serious injury perhaps. It is an accident waiting to happen in Scotland. The warnings signs are there.

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After flares landed in his box on Tuesday, Hibs goalkeeper Matt Macey explained that he was given clear instructions not to go anywhere near them. Just as well.

There have been a number of horrific incidents, including one two years ago when a fan blew his hand off lighting a flare in Brazil.

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A seven-year-old Hull City fan suffered facial injuries after being struck in the face by a pyrotechnic in a match against Barnsley only last month.

Another match in England last month, between Hashtag United and Concord Rangers reserves, had to be abandoned after a firework landed on the pitch and hit one of the players, the explosion striking his legs.

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A glass bottle, coin or flare thrown at an unsuspecting player could also do some serious damage.

The police can’t do much more than investigate any incidents that take place and charge those suspected of carrying out an offence.

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But that won’t stop it from happening. As long as the game’s governing bodies and the clubs themselves are not willing to introduce punitive measures to deter this type of behaviour, an idiotic minority will continue to think they can get away with it.

Both Hull and Barnsley issued strong statements after the injury to the child fan. In Scotland? Radio silence.

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Clubs, of course, have shown little appetite for introducing strict liability to deal with fan misbehaviour. Holding clubs liable for the actions of their supporters would mean fines and a host of potentially more serious sanctions. Clubs have too much to lose.

As it stands, UEFA has strict liability, and a version of it exists in England. But a survey in March 2019 found that just three out of 42 SPFL clubs would be in favour.

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That survey was conducted after a spate of unsavoury incidents in Scottish stadiums.

After fans were locked out for more than a year due to the pandemic, the reopening of stadiums has reintroduced the same old problems.

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Nothing has changed.