Scotland v England and the peculiarly divergent stance on football crowds | Ewan Murray

It is not the case that followers of Scottish football gaze enviously at the Premier League. Camera phones capturing goal celebrations and public investment funds bearing gifts mean Scots revel in their own authenticity. It may be thud and blunder but it is our thud and blunder.

Recent days, though, have seen wistful glances across the border. After Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, implemented a limit of 500 people at outdoor sporting events the Scottish Professional Football League’s board took the unusually smart decision to expedite their top-flight winter break. At what traditionally is a hectic, joyous time it was deemed better to close the gates. In a stark divergence between UK and Scottish policy, 52,178 watched Newcastle draw with Manchester United on Monday. Few face masks were seen. Leicester’s defeat of Liverpool had more than 30,000 in attendance. Presuming Burnley reach Old Trafford on Thursday, the crowds will likely top 70,000. If Celtic Park and Ibrox were open for business, 500 would be the cap. The same, that is, as East Fife’s Bayview.

As a grim backdrop sits record numbers of Covid-19 cases. England, not Scotland, is the outlier given multiple European countries have reverted to closed-door football. Sturgeon was perfectly correct in pointing towards pressure on emergency services – especially with Old Firm, Edinburgh and Dundee derbies at new year – as applied by football. Still, Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, drew criticism for the implementation of a blanket figure of attendees. “Of course you have to draw the line somewhere, we’ve drawn it at a variety of points over the last little while,” he said. “It’s very difficult to choose a number, you can either choose zero, 10,000 or somewhere in between. It’s a judgment based on trying to keep the risk as low as you possibly can but the alternative is just to close them down completely.” There is little confidence that Scotland will revert to anywhere close to full grounds when the Premiership restarts on 17 January. Should England plough on, and this also looks likely, the issue will rise on the radar of politicians.

It would seem odd but maybe both the UK and Scottish government are correct in decision making based on their own scientific advice. The trouble is, the public cannot properly assess the respective stances. Covid spread linked to or around football matches has never been properly and consistently detailed. There also appears to have been a subtle shift in public attitudes; the shortage of empty seats at major games would suggest some fans do not consider attending matches to be as high risk now as they did previously.

The notion that sport and politics must never mix was deeply flawed even before a pandemic left those in government making calls as heavily impacted this particular sector. The overlap is now intriguing. Make the basic point on social media about a huge gap in strategy between England and Scotland on this matter and – trust me – the reaction from people with diametrically opposed constitutional views is epic.

Devolution means public health decisions can be taken outside of Westminster. Some argue along the basic lines of Scotland being a separate country, as means separate rules. To others, it is incongruous that St James’ Park can host more than 50,000 when 90 minutes up the east coast mainline major grounds are bolted shut. Football fans in Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester or Sheffield surely behave no differently to those in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee or Aberdeen. There is even a regularly large influx from Scotland to the major English grounds, as is continuing via trains and supporters’ buses.

Newcastle fans create a raucous atmosphere for their match against Manchester United on 27 December.
Newcastle fans create a raucous atmosphere for their match against Manchester United on 27 December. Photograph: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United/Getty Images

Rangers fans with a strong sense of unionism will cite crowd curbs as typically of the Scottish National Party’s tyranny. A group of Celtic fans, who already felt oppressed by police, have recently displayed banners making their disquiet towards the Scottish government perfectly plain. While this anger from generally young men may be misdirected, it is perfectly easy to comprehend. Not only was there at least an insinuation of normal life post-vaccine, crowds got back into Scottish football grounds before that privilege was snatched away again. There will inevitably be a percentage of Scottish football fans who are conflicted; as staunch supporters of Sturgeon’s party while frustrated or angry that they cannot enjoy their weekend pastime of choice. Football fans have a habit of exaggerating their sport’s importance but if disquiet in Scotland spreads in meaningful form to the electorate, Sturgeon is bound to take note.

“These decisions are a fine balance but the public are slightly frustrated at the contradictory and inconsistent nature of what these rules mean,” says Ian Murray, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland. “A lot of people feel that going into a controlled circumstance, like a large outdoor event, with a negative lateral flow as part of the rules is a much safer place than crowding into houses or pubs to watch the football.” Under the Scottish covid passport project, proof of that lateral flow result or vaccine status was required for crowds of 10,000 or more. The scheme was very loosely policed.

It is not at all easy to source those in high office of Scottish football who are willing to berate the present situation. Theirs is a wise position. In the early stages of last season, with stadia closed, representatives of the SPFL and Scottish FA embarked upon routine whinging about what they perceived as unfair treatment. Not only did this look callous, it angered government. Scottish football has enjoyed benefits not available to other sectors as Covid has flipped society on its head. Season tickets have been sold, television contracts remained intact and the Old Firm have continued to trade players for millions of pounds. The Scottish government gave not inconsiderable financial support to SPFL clubs. Football alone cannot play the victim this time; 70,000 watched Harlequins’ defeat of Northampton at Twickenham on Saturday. Glasgow Warriors against Edinburgh on Monday, postposed after a Covid outbreak in the home ranks, would have been spectator-free.

The much-used argument that football grounds should remain packed simply because shopping centres are is undermined on grounds of behaviour. The masked shoppers who spend Saturday afternoons in Next or Holland & Barrett are not prone to leaping all over each other in wild celebration after bursts of community singing. “A crowd of 500 at a Rangers game compared to a crowd of 50,000 which would normally be of that order makes a very, very clear significant point that we have to reduce dramatically the level of social interaction,” explained John Swinney, Scotland’s deputy first minister.

The anomaly is not specific to Scotland. Close to 10,000 took in this week’s Belfast derby between Linfield and Glentoran. Fans of Cardiff City and Swansea City are locked out of their grounds but more than 20,000 have scope to attend Bristol City v Queens Park Rangers just a short hop along the M4 on Thursday evening. Berwick Rangers by geographical quirk could presumably admit as many people as they like to the new year’s day, Scottish Lowland League, visit of Bonnyrigg Rose. As Scotland’s top-flight clubs pray for similar opportunity, they need the latest of Boris Johnson’s high-risk games to pay off. Should it not, football supporters in England have been thrust into wholly dangerous territory. Reckless England or over cautious Scotland? Watch this space.


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