On Overturning the Alcohol Ban in Scottish Football Grounds

Posted by Tom Brogan on Sunday, February 15, 2015
Scottish Labour announced recently that they are holding a consultation into the reintroduction of alcohol to Scottish football grounds. 

I'm happy to agree that Jim Murphy is using this debate as a tool to win back voters that Scottish Labour betrayed during the Referendum. I dare say there's been long talks on what issue would get lapsed Labour supporters back behind them, and this is what they've come up with. I think they've badly misjudged that. There are far more important issues around that disillusioned former Labour voters might be pleased to see Murphy and Scottish Labour getting behind. Fracking, foodbanks, NHS, austerity; you can name dozens.

As a football fan though, I've got a bit fed up seeing the arguments on Twitter against alcohol being reintroduced into Scottish football grounds. Some of those I’ve seen are below.
  • Remember the 70s? Massed boozed up groups stabbing and bottling each others faces.
  • Alcohol at football = more people headed to A&E.
  • Can't go 90 mins without a drink? Really?
  • A return to the violence of the 70s and 80s.
It seems those in favour of maintaining the ban are of the opinion that Scottish football fans are always just two pints away from a full scale riot.

Alcohol is on sale at football matches in England. I've been to several games down south and not seen the slightest hint of bother due to fans having a drink. If there's no problems week to week at grounds up and down England, I don't know why the default reaction here is that Scottish fans will start fighting.

If alcohol is sold in Scottish football grounds it will be in the same manner as down south. Spectators will be able to buy and consume alcohol in the concourse before the game and at half-time. You won't be allowed to take a drink to your seat and you won't be able to buy a drink during the match.

When alcohol was allowed in Scottish football grounds it was in the form of fans taking in their own carry-outs. To be fair, that's not strictly true. Fans weren't encouraged to take their own tipples in with them. With the police having no powers to search, fans could  get away with doing this, so long as their drinks weren't spotted on the way in. If they were you had two options. Drop it into into the bin outside, or drink it down before you went in. It wasn't illegal in those days to drink outside the ground, nor was it against the law to drink on the terracing. This resulted in completely unregulated drinking. As well as many discarded bottles and beers cans littering the terraces. These could be, on occasion, used as missiles. This situation is not what Murphy is suggesting with a reintroduction of alcohol to Scottish football. Although you wouldn't think that by some opponents' comments.

There seems to be a perception that once alcohol is on sale in football grounds fans will go hammer and tongs at the bar and get mad with it. In actual fact fans' drinking will be easier to monitor, and like all pubs in the country,  as per the licensing laws, anyone who is drunk won't be sold alcohol. It's not like staff at the grounds will be powerless to stop selling fans alcohol once they're on their way to consuming too much. There would also be police and stewards on hand to eject anyone who has too much to drink, or takes umbrage at being refused service.

When the drinks ban was partially overturned in 2007 to allow Murrayfield to sell alcohol during rugby matches, then Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill said,  

"There is a world of difference between people drinking a bottle of cheap cider in a park to get drunk and enjoying a pint of beer at half-time of a rugby match. We've listened to representations from fans, Scottish Rugby and the police. The fans can't understand why they can have a drink at Twickenham and at Millennium Stadium and at some rugby games and not others. They want to be able to enjoy a civilised drink during international matches at Murrayfield. This is not a licence to binge drink, to go to the rugby and get drunk."

You'll find in the grounds that beer on sale will be 275ml plastic bottles priced at £3.50, so getting tanked up at Celtic Park, Ibrox or Cliftonhill won't be an economical option for the dedicated steamer. As for the suggestion that people must have a problem if they need a drink at a football match, no one looks at people going to see a play at The Tron or The Citizens and thinks, “Can you not go two acts without having a drink?” It's seen as a perfectly sociable activity, just as it is at the ice-hockey, rugby or any of the events at last summer's Commonwealth Games. 

Critics of the proposals are also kidding themselves on if they think fans aren't having a drink before a match currently. Go to any pub near a ground half an hour before kick-off and you'll find it packed out. Of course should staff in those pubs wish to sell their clientèle more than they can consume they know that the punters will clear out before the game kicks off. So if they've had too much to drink they'll be someone else's problem. I've watched a fan stagger up to Celtic Park only to be turned back by a mounted policewoman. He of course just staggered off to approach the ground from a different angle.

The catalyst for the alcohol ban in Scottish football was the 1980 Scottish Cup final. One of most infamous matches in Scottish football history, the game itself  was nothing much to remember with Celtic winning 1-0 thanks to a George McCluskey goal in extra-time. But after the final whistle blew both sets of fans invaded the pitch and a riot started. Mounted police drew their long riot batons for the first time in Glasgow since the 1926 general strike. There's a good account of it in this Scotsman article and there's video below.

Reading the Evening Times in the week after the riot, reporters and readers barely mentioned alcohol as a contributory factor to the riot. Suggestions for a remedy to such trouble included –

  • Banning anyone who looked under-25
  • Rangers signing a catholic
  • Celtic lowering the tricolour at Parkhead 
  • Breweries changing from glass bottles to plastic 
  • A larger police presence 
  • Celtic and Rangers to be expelled from the Scottish Cup
  • Old Firm games being played behind closed doors
  • Rangers being allowed only to field cats, while Celtic could only select small dogs
I made up that last one. But only that last one.

The SFA president Willie Harkness suggested the invasion was sparked by Celtic players going over to their own fans to celebrate. “It should never have been allowed,” he was quoted in the Glasgow Herald as saying. “This was followed by them invading the pitch. If Celtic players had just come off there might not have been any problem, but this doesn't excuse the disgraceful scenes that followed.” 

It took a while for the blame to land at the feet of alcohol. 

Again in the Glasgow Herald an exchange during a question and answer session with Strathclyde Police went:

Why were so many fans able to carry drink into the ground?

The police do not have any power to frisk fans for drink. However, in co-operation with the football authorities, we make every effort to ensure no drink is taken into a game.

This might be indicative of an era when monetising everything concerned with football wasn't a large concern. Had someone thought of actually selling drink in grounds and actively banning BYOB then perhaps it wouldn't have become a major problem in the first place.

1980 wasn't the first time an alcohol ban was suggested. The 1977 McElhone Report, commissioned by the Secretary of State for Scotland, recommended a total ban on alcohol being taken into football grounds. The report also suggested that the police should have statutory powers to search.

It was right that drink should be banned from games at that time. But a lot has changed in football and in society since 1980.

As a Clydebank supporter I go to Junior football most weeks. You can drink here. Many teams have social clubs, where the regular fan can have a drink before the match. While it's frowned upon, some fans will have a few cans during the game. I haven't seen any bother, even when there's normally no segregation at these games. Although admittedly the numbers in attendance are much smaller than most Scottish PFL games.

While football all across the world has a relationship with crowd trouble that other sports doesn't have, the alcohol ban is a measure from another era. It's time that, at the very least, it should be dropped for a trial period.

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