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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Scottish Cup, preliminary round 2: I fought the law (but our updated ‘health and safety’ policy won)



There were a couple of decent options for the neutral supporter last weekend in the second preliminary round of the Scottish Cup. I opted to drive to Castle Douglas to attend the tie between Threave Rovers and Linlithgow Rose.

I assumed that the local team, rather than opt for something like ‘Castle Douglas United’, had named themselves after the nearby Threave Castle, once the seat of the Earls of Douglas. But the club website revealed that Rovers, formed in 1953, actually got their name from the former Threave Tearooms in the centre of town. Their supporters must be thankful that the founders hadn’t opted to have their initial meetings at Archie’s Greasy Spoon. Castle Douglas has strong links with Glasgow, perhaps because it housed many of the city’s evacuated children during the war. It is a pretty town and, according to a local contact, fiercely protective of its idiosyncratic character. I was told that Tesco was only permitted to open a shop there on the condition that it would not have a butcher or a baker (I had, alas, no inside information on any issues concerning the candle-stick maker). And, walking down the main street on Saturday afternoon, one couldn’t help but notice that there were several local butchers and bakers, each appearing to do decent business. I can also report that it is possible to get a nice cup of tea and a scone within five minutes of the football ground. These things are important. 

When Threave signed up to the Scottish Football Association’s club licensing system a few years ago, they were invited to join the newly-formed Lowland Football League, part of a long-overdue attempt to introduce a pyramid system to our league structure. Unfortunately, they found it too difficult to compete and -at the end of last season- opted to re-join the South of Scotland Football League. Their honours list includes victories in the Cree Lodge Cup, the Tweedie Cup and the Haig Gordon Memorial Trophy (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sir Alex Ferguson). On top of that, they once knocked Stenhousemuir out of the Scottish Cup, an honour they share with a number of other teams. The thing that struck me most as I browsed the club’s website the night before the game was that no fewer than seventeen different policy documents were given prominent space. There seemed to be policies for everything. Given the modest attendances at their games, perhaps the long-term goal was to have a policy statement for every spectator. I would have been particularly interested in the policy for people with a vague sense of existential ennui. I wondered what the club might do if a fan had some upsetting thoughts about the nature of free will?


I noted with interest that their ground regulations stated that:  


The moving from one area of the ground to another without permission of a steward, Police Officer or other authorised agent of the Club is strictly forbidden.


And that:


With the exemption of persons authorised by the Club management and press representatives holding passes, the taking of photographs or use of video equipment inside the ground is prohibited. 
 
Given that these were two of the activities I planned to undertake at the game, I was a little concerned.

I then had a look at the Linlithgow Rose website to see what I could learn about the club. It is one of the most successful in the Scottish Junior (i.e. non-league) set-up; not only have they won lots of trophies, but their record home attendance of 3,626 is only a few hundred bodies short of the entire population of Castle Douglas. The most famous player in their history is Tommy Walker, who also played for Hearts and Scotland. The current squad contains a number of ex-pros, including former Hearts stars Joe Hammil and Graham Weir. The latter had changed a bit since the last time I saw him on TV; his photo on the squad profile page suggested that he might now have a sideline playing in a Biffy Clyro tribute act. 

The website also boasted six rather hefty club policy documents under various headings, along with a statement that they were “committed to making participation in the club’s activities as a player, member of the coaching staff, Committee Member, Spectator or in any other capacity a very pleasing and fulfilling one.”  
I wondered if the person who coined the phrase fulfilling and pleasing knew anything at all about the history of Scottish football. My footballing experiences, for the most part, involved angst, boredom, frustration, humiliation and a crushing sense of the inevitability of failure. And there was some bad stuff as well. In order to ensure that we were fulfilled and pleased, ‘offensive behaviour’ was usefully defined as ‘any actions that are designed to or negligently result in distress to others, including Use of Foul and Abusive Language, Discrimination based on a person’s religion, gender, colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability’.   

Alongside the stuff about various potential misdemeanours like racism, fighting, spitting, drunkenness, farting, cruelty to animals and misquoting eighties song lyrics (OK … I’ve made a few of those up), there was something in capital letters about FOUL LANGUAGE.
Spectators were urged to report anyone they considered to be ‘out of order’ with regards to the use of FOUL LANGUAGE. I wondered how ‘out of order’ could be defined, because it seems like such a subjective term. I think, for example, that my brother-in-law is ‘out of order’ for enjoying the hits of Westlife. Could I have him evicted from family gatherings on that basis? How could a policy based on subjective interpretations of an imprecise phrase be reasonably enforced? Should such a policy be enforced? In my experience, FOUL LANGUAGE is part and parcel of the Scottish game. Some of my most entertaining moments watching football have involved being witness to world-class shouting and swearing. At a Clyde v Queen of the South match in the mid-80s, I heard an unfortunate goalkeeper, having dropped what is technically known as a ‘clanger’, being assailed thus by an apoplectic supporter: “Shocking! Fuckin’ shocking! You’re a fuckin’ disgrace! You’re a fuckin’ useless fucking cunt! (pause for dramatic effect) … and your wife has left you for a fuckin’ hairdresser!” There is, I think, a place in the game for passionate foul-mouthed ranting of the kind that occasionally leads to the exponent being hospitalised for high blood pressure or a mild heart attack. And it’s not just the fans who should be allowed to indulge in this activity. My son recently played for a team whose coach exhorted his defenders, several times in the course of the average game, to “just get the fucking ball to fuck!” I don’t know about you, but I’d happily re-mortgage my house to pay for the privilege of sitting behind the Arsenal dug-out and listen to Arsene Wenger shouting that to Per Mertesacker.  

It is clear, however, that the authorities do not share my view that swearing can be both big and clever. I’d imagine that the reason these small clubs have gone all ‘policy-tastic’ is that they are now required to comply with the Scottish Football Association’s licensing system. The SFA, no doubt for reasons they believe to be well-intentioned, think that all clubs -even those watched by very few spectators- should adopt their approved templates. Depending on your point of view, that could be interpreted as either progressive administration or excessive micro-management. According to the SFA website: 
National Club Licensing operates a Gold, Silver, Bronze and Entry level system. Clubs are granted an overall award reflecting the lowest level that the club achieves in the four sections of criteria (Ground, First Team Football, Youth Team Football and Legal, Admin, Finance and Codes of Practice).  
There are some bigger points about society to be made here, but I’d suggest that something in our mentality has altered over the last few decades. We are now more likely –than we were in, say, the 1980s- to acquiesce to bureaucratic micro-management and to power being focused in the centre. We accept that official bodies have a regulatory input to societal mores. We accept that the state has some dominion over matters which would once have been considered private. We are more likely to take offence, more likely to resort to litigation, more likely to expect ‘authority’ to intervene in social intercourse. Just how serious were Threave Rovers about those club policies? Would they really stop someone from taking pictures or walking from one end of the ground to the other? Were those rules designed to be followed, or were they put in place to placate the football authorities? 

In Scotland, we certainly have a government that likes to micro-manage. 

Acting in the belief that they were ‘tackling’ the ‘problem’ of sectarianism, the Scottish Government introduced the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act in 2011. 
This legislation was designed to catch any songs that created or risked public disorder. In cases where the chants or songs might fall short of the ‘public disorder’ benchmark, it was to be left up to individual police officers to decide whether the chants and songs were offensive enough to incite wider disorder. To summarise: What you’re singing at a football match might be likely to get you thrown into jail. Or it might not. It depends upon who is on duty at the time. And any ‘offence’ which is potentially taken need not actually be taken or complained about by anyone who witnesses the singing. In fact, it doesn’t matter if nobody witnesses the offensive singing. That ‘risk of public disorder’ will be assessed by the commanding officer on duty. I trust that clears things up.  

The government thought this legislation necessary because they believe that we are all either potential victims or potential perpetrators; we’ll either suffer psychological damage by being called a fenian or a hun, or we’ll be the kind of person who starts off using those words and ends up sending parcel bombs to people they don’t like. There may be a connection between shouting something inappropriate at a football match and sending someone a parcel bomb, but it's the same kind of connection that exists between having a knife in your kitchen drawer and actually stabbing someone. The result of this egregious legislation is that Scotland is now a country where silly teenagers get jailed for singing a song, or for posting idiotic opinions online.

Things were certainly different when I started regularly attending matches. Sectarian chanting was de rigueur at some club matches and I remember attending a Scotland v England game in the mid-eighties when the ‘marvellous’ Tartan Army made monkey noises every time the black English player John Barnes got on the ball. Oh, how we laughed at their native northern wit. There was, too, an occasional frisson of violence. I recall walking back to Glasgow city centre with some friends after a game between Celtic and Aberdeen. Our spider senses alerted us to the fact that a group of Aberdeen casuals were heading in our direction. As they started to gather pace, we guessed that they didn’t want to talk about the game or anything like that. Reasoning that velocity was the better part of cowardice, we bolted as fast as we could in the general direction of get-us-outta-here. I stupidly ran up a tenement close, not thinking about what I’d do if I were to be pursued to the top of the stairs. As luck would have it, my pursuers must have lost interest, because I got to the second floor and realised that I hadn’t been followed all the way into the close. Perhaps the cognitive abilities of the Aberdeen casuals didn’t allow them to shout "Die, ya fuckin’ Weegie Bastard!" and manage the stairs. On a less violent note, it was once the case that -during a big game on a packed terrace- having someone pee down your leg was something of an initiation ceremony. While you’d be concentrating on the action, the drunken clod behind you would be trying to pee into a can, invariably missing or splashing off the can, ensuring that his beery piss was shared with those in the immediate vicinity. Nowadays, if someone were to pee on you, you’d be entitled to scream "out of order!" at the stewards and have the offender charged with a hate crime. 


I'd like to make it clear at this point that I’m not arguing that racist or sectarian abuse (or indeed peeing on someone’s shoes) is acceptable. But outlawing words doesn’t create a more virtuous society. Virtue can’t be imposed; it can only be chosen, because it is a by-product of free will. In the pursuit of what they perceive to be a virtuous end, the authorities have merely introduced a gagging policy. They don’t appear to understand that the outlawing of something that is perceived to be bad (in this case, singing ‘sectarian’ songs) does not make the person who is cowed into not singing any more virtuous; it just means that that person has been cowed into not singing. In that sense, the legislation represents not progress, but merely the imposition of corporate will. That’s why, in spite of the banning of ‘sectarian’ songs, supporters persist in keeping them alive, in one way or another.



As for the game itself, it took place in Threave's picturesque Meadow Park ground, cosily tucked into the corner of a small industrial estate on the edge of town. It was £6 to get in and my half-time pie and bovril came in at a very reasonable £2.30. I’d have liked the pie to have been a bit warmer, so I’ll be suggesting an addition to the club policies. My impression from the opening exchanges was that Linlithgow were going to be way too strong for the home team. After about five minutes, Graham Weir used the outside of his foot to place a shot beyond the Threave goalie. Just a couple of moments later, Linlithgow added a second, through a powerful header from Blair Batchelor; at that point, I thought we were going to witness a massacre. The Rose looked faster, stronger, more organised and more skilful. In simple things like passing, movement and using upper body strength, there looked to be a big gulf between the teams. Two-nil down in no time at all, the locals appeared to be resigning themselves to a sound thrashing, but then - because football, as has been scientifically proven, is a funny old game- Threave conjured a goal out of nothing. A high cross into the box was killed on his chest by centre-forward Ben Irving and then volleyed low into the bottom corner. From where I stood, it was Van Basten-esque in execution, a goal fit to win the cup itself. Although local hopes were raised, Linlithgow continued to look the more impressive team. I liked the way Andy Shirra in midfield did the simple things and kept the ball moving, while the nippy Graham Weir always looked like causing problems for the sometimes ponderous-looking home defence. It was obvious that Threave’s best hope was to play it long and hope that their industrious front two could rustle something up from the scraps, but -hard as they tried- they didn’t really threaten their opponents. Linlithgow won 2-1, but should have polished off their opponents more comfortably. 

And thankfully, those extensive health and safety policies were not rigorously enforced. Photographs were being taken (some of them, as you can see, by me) and people were moving around the ground without permission from the stewards. One man was even swearing, with some proficiency, whenever someone in maroon misplaced a pass.  

As my boy's former coach might have put it: “Just get those fucking policies to fuck.”

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