Strict liability: 'Disheartening' silence from Celtic, Rangers, Hibs, Hearts & others

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland

When, earlier this month, a Hibernian supporter accosted Rangers' James Tavernier only a week after another Hibs fan hurled a bottle at Celtic's Scott Sinclair, the response from Easter Road was swift and emphatic.

Leeann Dempster, the Hibs chief executive, spoke passionately of her disgust at the behaviour of the fans in question. She was "raging" and "furious" and "embarrassed".

She went on: "This week alone I've had to write to Scott Sinclair and apologise to him for the bottle and I'm going to see Mr Tavernier and apologise to him as well. It's unacceptable. A statement from the club isn't good enough. I think we have to talk about this."

How disappointing, then, that when BBC Scotland canvassed Hibs - and the other 41 senior clubs in Scotland - for their opinion on strict liability the only comment the club wanted to make was "no comment".

Not 'for' and not 'against' - just unwilling to get involved. For a club with a series of supporter transgressions in their locker, and some strong words spoken in the wake of those transgressions, their unwillingness to engage with the question was, frankly, a let-down.

'Results are illuminating and predictable'

The results of the poll on strict liability are illuminating and predictable at the same time: both in the number of clubs who are prepared to speak up on Scottish football taking a stronger line in dealing with bottle throwing, coin throwing, sectarianism, racism and players being confronted by abusive fans - just three out of 42 in favour - and the number of clubs who are against or who just didn't have any interest in participating - the other 39.

Annan Athletic, Partick Thistle and Queen of the South are the lone advocates of strict liability. Fourteen others say they are against the idea. That's their prerogative - and it's not a surprise. Some of these clubs have previously expressed their view that no club should be held responsible, and sanctioned, for the poor behaviour of rogue elements among their support.

What is strict liability?
Strict liability is where clubs can be punished for the conduct of its fans regardless of whether the club itself is to blame. It is used by Uefa for European competitions

What was grim about the whole process of polling all of Scotland's senior clubs was the number of no comments and, particularly, the number of no replies.

Celtic are the country's most powerful club, but they did not respond. It's safe to say that Celtic are firmly in the anti-strict liability camp, but there was no communication from them. There was also no response from Rangers, Dundee United, Falkirk, Hearts, Kilmarnock, Livingston and Queen's Park.

Some of these cases are especially deflating. When the Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke was subjected to sustained sectarian abuse by Rangers fans in February, his passionate post-match comments reverberated around British football. Clarke is a tough man, but he was emotional that night when recounting the bigotry directed at him. "To call me a Fenian b******, where are we living? The dark ages?" asked Clarke. "I wake up every morning and thank Chelsea for taking me away from the west of Scotland because my kids don't understand this."

Alas, Clarke's club did not see fit to respond when asked for their views on strict liability. In offering a "most sincere apology" to Clarke after that game, Dave King, the Rangers chairman, received deserved praise for his decency and his leadership. King said he "abhors the sectarian element that continues to be so prevalent in Scottish football" and was "deeply distressed" that Clarke was subjected to such treatment. "We will continue to do everything we can at our club to root sectarianism out".

Rangers also gave no reply. Hearts, a club with their own issues in recent times, had nothing to say either. Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen: not one of them gave a view.

'Only serial offenders would have anything to fear'

It's high-time the game had a look at itself, though. The words 'strict liability' are toxic to many clubs, as we can see from the results. To many in fear of the concept, strict liability means points deductions or stand or stadium closures for the actions of one person throwing a bottle or a coin or attacking a player or singing about Fenians and the IRA.

It's not beyond the wit of man to rethink it, to tweak it to suit Scottish football. One person throws a bottle or a coin - let the club ban him and let the police arrest him. Liability should not fall on the club for the madness of a single supporter. It wouldn't be fair.

If it happens multiple times only then are you into the realm of graded sanctions, starting with a warning and then a fine. Only serial offenders would have anything to fear from a modified version of strict liability. Those clubs who can't, or won't, stop their supporters singing discriminatory songs would have bigger problems, of course. That's why they not only don't want it but don't even want to talk about it.

If you are a small club and you field an ineligible player then watch out, the football authorities are coming for you with a large axe. If you are a big club and your fans, by their thousands, are singing sectarian songs then the authorities have nothing to say. It's a twisted logic and it's shown up in this poll.

Almost 60% of senior clubs in Scotland did not engage. That's as predictable as it is disheartening.


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