The advent of safe-standing at Celtic Park signals an overdue discord from compulsory seating in British stadiums. It’s a progressive step, and on its wing should come a discussion about another relic of the 1980s which taints Scottish Football. No, not Andy Walker’s special brand of punditry, but the booze ban.
It was an ugly summer of football. From a Croatia v Portugal round-of-16 match, which one social media analyst refused to compare with drying paint for fear of offending the paint, to the spurts of violence dotted around France during the group stages, the Euros weren’t a great advert. Bans on alcohol sales were loosely enforced around France depending on which mob was in town at the time.
Closer to home, international friendly performances against Italy and France were rotten, and the aftermath of this year’s Scottish Cup Final wound the doomsday clock a few ticks forward. A tense match, heated rivalry, euphoric pitch invasion, confrontation, violence, and a maligned police response: a 21st century homage to the shameful Scottish Cup Final riot of 1980.
A Misplaced Response
A hysteria of accusations between angry club officials, supporters, pundits and politicians allowed an open window for logical discussion to fall shut with nobody having peaked through it. The din smothered whispers of common sense which had been heard from Westminster on the issue the previous year.
No reasonable assessor could pinpoint one cause, but political responses aim to do just that. Section 5 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act of 1980, banning alcohol from our stadiums, is the legacy of a national condemnation that year. Drunk hooligans were the problem, they said; closing the stadium bars should solve it.
Today’s crop of Scottish Parliamentarians stood, in the aftermath of the Hibs Vs Rangers final, with one hand pointing to the 1980 Act, and the other giving a solid thumbs up. The suggestion being that without the 36-year-old ban, crowd trouble might have been worse; a cowardly act of backwards reasoning to justify their inaction.
Here’s a less contorted assessment: the alcohol ban is impotent. The ban does little for crowd safety. In reality, it punishes a well-meaning majority, closes off sources of revenue to clubs, and fuels binge drinking.
The Reality of a Total Ban
In both 1980 and 2016, alcohol was one ingredient in a cocktail of influences made from the elation and despair of football, animosity between rivals, sectarian hatred, hooliganism and questionable policing, garnished with poor stadium fencing.
The ban harmonises with a political culture of regulation which rightfully seeks to alter Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. But the booze ban, in reality, stokes the urge to binge drink; fans will certainly drink on match day. Knowing they can’t have a beer in the stadium provokes intense pre-gaming, then after a few dry hours in the stadium many feel incented to play catch-up.
The violence after this year’s final manifested around two hours after fans last legal sip of alcohol. Think of your unruly drunken pal, he’s never at his rowdy worst two hours after the event. Encouraging him to sink beers before the game, as this ban does, results in a spike in drunkenness some time early in the match, and another one after the match, when he’s on the loose re-intoxicating in the city.
If alcohol truly has been the primary source of crowd trouble, banning its sale in stadiums only shifts the point at which its effects are most troublesome. Tellingly though, a study canvassing views of Police Commanders involved with crowd control in English Football, found that only 20% of Commanders saw alcohol as a serious influence on the behaviour of home fans, and 35% felt it seriously affected the away contingent.
A ban which provides no marked results but keeps Scottish Football chained to a shameful episode in its past needs rethought.
While having little tangible effect on crowd safety, the ban restrains stadium atmosphere and shuts off a viable source of revenue from clubs. Two cold, damp cloths thrown over the heart of Scottish Football. Though still capable of electrifying an occasion, our fans are desperate for a spark of energy like that which safe-standing seems to have given Celtic Park, and many of our clubs are in dire need of extra revenue.
American College-level sports teams, with Celtic Park-sized venues, sell enough beer to clear £384,000 in profit in a season. In Scottish Football terms, this is over two-thirds of the fee the Premiership champions paid for Moussa Dembele. That’s a significant kick back.
The Power to Regulate
In ditching the booze ban, our clubs would gain power to regulate fans’ consumption, as countless stadiums across the world do, rather than having to rely on an instantaneous judgement of sobriety at the point of entry. The incentive for heavy pre-game drinking would be lowered, and the pace of boozing could be cooled by restrictions at the point-of-sale.
The benefits of selling alcohol in stadiums elsewhere in the sporting world aren’t spoiled by crowd disorder as implied by the politics of Scotland. In fact, in the United States the belief is growing that selling alcohol during a match tends to reduce ‘uncontrolled consumption’ outwith the stadium.
Major League Soccer side Seattle Sounders enforce a two-at-a-time limit for fans buying beer in the first half, and one-at-a-time in the second, before closing bars ten minutes prior to the final whistle. This is a mature and modern approach relative to the slipshod Scottish ban.
Restricting booze-flow like this sends a clear message to fans: you can drink here, but you won’t be getting drunk here. Instead of forcing sobriety down the throats of drunk fans, regulated alcohol sales usher drinkers along at a steadier pace. Fans avoid that dangerous spike in drunkenness and the deep trough of sobriety which follows it, while clubs enjoy a festive stadium atmosphere and a hike in concession sales.
Status Quo of Negativity
40 years ago, the legislative process of banning alcohol might have been less painful than either confronting a sectarian presence within Celtic and Rangers or publicly criticising the police, so dry stadiums became the order of things. Rather than working toward a reasonable judgement after this May’s final, politicians misjudged crowd violence in support of that tired ban.
Scottish Football could benefit greatly by confronting this old demon. The obvious incentives outweigh a speculated risk, and most top-tier clubs are in favour of relaxing the ban. Going against what is a harsh grain will need a bold political champion.
Written by Scott McLean