The crime of being a football fan

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Spiked online is a website dedicated to independent thought which fights prejudice, illiberalism, luddism and all sorts of other isms that we too disagree with. It’s becoming a bit of a favourite here at the FSF and has produced a string of articles which sum up exactly how unfair and frustrating the policing of football fans can be – see the links at the bottom of this page. First up though, Celtic fan Kevin Rooney tells us why he’ll be standing up to the police in court…

‘You have been handed this notice because the issuing officer has reason to believe you have committed the offence described’, said the piece of paper thrust into my hand as I ambled along a Glasgow street, surrounded by nine police officers.

What was my heinous offence? Drinking a bottle of Budweiser on a summer evening while making my way to a football match. It was a Champions League qualifier on 17 August at the Celtic Park stadium, and my beloved team Celtic were up against Arsenal. When the policemen stopped me, I protested that I was unaware of any law against drinking in public. They said this was ‘irrelevant’; my question about how to appeal the charge was met with howls of derision and laughter.

After being held and questioned for 15 minutes – the police asked, among other things, how often I travel to Glasgow and why - I was issued with a fixed penalty notice under the Antisocial Behaviour (Scotland) Act 2004. Failure to pay the £40 fine within seven days will result in an increased fine and a potential court appearance.

More than having to watch my team being outclassed on home ground by Arsenal, it was the treatment of fans outside the arena which really riled me. Talking about my brush with the law with friends back home in London, it became clear that many put up with similar treatment on a daily basis; indeed, my anecdote was met with weary resignation.

Many of my fellow football fans in Glasgow had responded with similar resignation and passivity on the day of the Celtic-Arsenal game. I joined several hundred fans who gathered in the well-known Bar 67 (so named as 1967 was the year Celtic won the European Cup). Everyone was in good spirits, drinking and belting out Celtic and Irish songs. Such joviality is not to everyone’s tastes, of course, but then those who don’t enjoy drinking with hundreds of Celtic fans know to stay away from Bar 67 on a match day. Luckily, Glasgow has enough pubs to suit all tastes!

Still, an army of police officers was strategically placed in and around Bar 67 on the day of the game. Some were even stationed in the gents and, believe me, neither singing nor urinating are very enjoyable when you’re being monitored at close quarters by tooled-up officers of the law. Yet when I complained about this intrusive behaviour to fellow drinkers, they told me that this is now the norm.

Apparently, the original justification for the heavy police presence was to prevent fans from singing sectarian songs. This is part of a long-running campaign to kick sectarianism out of Scottish football and ease tensions between the followers of local teams Celtic, which traditionally has mainly Catholic supporters, and Rangers, which has a largely Protestant following.

Everyone I spoke to at Bar 67 said that there is now similar police presence even in pubs where there is no singing. So we effectively have a situation where, in a major city in the UK, the police have the right to enter pubs and, without much protest, listen in on our conversations, monitor our singing and oversee our toilet habits.

I witnessed the clampdown on happy singing firsthand on the day of the Celtic-Arsenal game. As I was pinned up against the police van and surrounded by the nine cops, another young man caught their attention. While I had been walking along quietly drinking my beer, this 18-year-old was, like many a football fan before him, singing on his way to the game. It was the famous Celtic ditty ‘Hail, Hail the Celts are Here’.

One of the police officers broke off her interrogation of me in order to tell the man to stop singing or he would be arrested. I pointed out that the song was in no way sectarian, but the officer simply responded: ‘That guy was at it earlier.’ In other words, she saw him as a potential troublemaker and used the chanting clampdown as an excuse to discipline him. So singing on your way to a football game – something which most fans would agree adds to the excitement and good atmosphere on match days – can now get you arrested.

Before the Celtic-Arsenal game last month it had been a few years since I last drank in Bar 67 and in the dozen or so other working-class pubs that line the route to Celtic Park. What struck me this time around was the extent to which the authoritarian policing of fans at football games has poisoned the great and unique atmosphere I have always associated with these drinking dens. The fans who drink here are the backbone of Celtic’s support, but over the years their behaviour has been demonised and criminalised.

This demonisation of working-class football fans is not restricted to Scotland, as Brendan O’Neill pointed out on spiked last week (see Yes, it’s a return to the dark ages of football…). Having been caught out for enjoying a beer on the streets of Glasgow, I decided to check out details of the law before heading off to the second leg of the Celtic-Arsenal Champions League qualifier on 25 August. This time, the game was at Arsenal’s homeground: the Emirates stadium in London.

While enjoying a beer outside the Swan pub in north London on a lovely summer evening, with my two brothers visiting from Belfast and my hugely excited 10-year-old son, I had a sense of déjà vu as a group of police officers approached and told us it’s illegal to drink in the street.

I politely informed the officer that the proposed law to ban drinking in public in Islington has not yet been passed and therefore drinking in the street was still totally legal. Far from thanking me for my superior knowledge of local laws, however, the officer grabbed our bottles and emptied them into the street, but not before threatening to arrest me and put my child into care for the night.

It’s hard to decide what is more depressing: the authoritarian behaviour of police towards football fans guilty of nothing but trying to enjoy themselves in time-honoured fashion, or the compliance of fans once known for their rebellious spirit. In my own small act of rebellion I have refused to pay the fine and will meet Glasgow’s finest in court to express my right to attend a game of football in the way I see fit. I probably have as much chance of winning as my beloved Celtic had of beating Arsenal, but some battles are worth fighting.

Perhaps there are some Rangers fans out there who would like to support me on my day in court? We may sing different songs, but we should unite in our resolve to have the right to sing them!

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school and is speaking at the debate The Ugly Game? The Old Firm, football rivalry and the politics of behaviour at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on Sunday 1 November.

Brendan O'Neill on hysteria over hooliganism.

Duleep Allirajah on policing post-Hillsborough.

Duleep Allirajah on the death of hooliganism.

Duleep Allirajah on safe standing and restrictions on liberty.

Graham Barntree on the 'soccerati' who love the game but hate the fans.