When it comes to booze, football is different

Written by Kenny MacAskill on 7 November 2018 in Comment

Alcohol can be reintroduced to football, but common sense dictates that the sport cannot be treated like rugby, says Kenny MacAskill

Kenny MacAskill - David Anderson/Holyrood

Alcohol at football games has again come to the fore and comparisons have been made to rugby where it was restored in 2007. It was my decision, then, as Justice Secretary with responsibility for licensing legislation, to allow it, and it wasn’t without controversy, but it has worked out well in practice. But, as with the sports themselves, the issues are similar yet different. 

As in 2007, again, the issue has been driven by international competitions. This time it’s UEFA changing its blanket ban on alcohol for the Euro 2020 competition where Hampden will host fixtures. For rugby, it was the 2007 World Cup where Murrayfield was the setting and as with Hampden, it faced being the only stadium in the competition where alcohol couldn’t be sold.

There were several factors at play. Firstly, the general ambiance of the event for visiting fans, especially given it was a major international competition with people travelling from near and far. Secondly, there were safety concerns as it was clear from past experience at Murrayfield that fans drank often quickly and excessively at nearby hostelries, before rushing to the game for kick-off.

That bottleneck was dangerous in itself especially in a post-Hillsborough environment. Finally, there was a financial opportunity for the sporting authority which was not inconsiderable – a potential revenue stream in hundreds of thousands per fixture. Given these financial issues and a desire to promote the sport at both grassroots and elite level, that required consideration. 

For me, it was an easy decision. It had never been intended that rugby would be included in the alcohol ban when the legislation was brought in after the Old Firm cup final riot in 1980. Rugby authorities were unable to explain why they had volunteered to be included when they had neither been responsible nor targeted – but it hung around their neck.

There were police concerns, not over rugby, but that it would be used as a Trojan horse for football where they had genuine concerns. They were given an assurance that it would be for rugby only at that juncture. More problematic was the view of the Health Department in the Scottish Government. It objected to alcohol promotion, forgetting it’s not the drink but how it’s consumed that’s the problem.      

So, restored it was and it has been an outstanding success. It’s added to the atmosphere, bringing fans to the ground earlier, where they can consume alcohol and also enjoy pre-match entertainment. It’s not been abused and arrests and disorder have been very isolated.

Of course, football is different. It’s not class prejudice but common sense that dictates that. Crowds can be far more volatile and there’s a section that perpetrates organised violence around the sport. However, the opportunity for the SFA will be significant and the nature and availability of alcohol can vary, depending on the fixture and a risk assessment.  

The problem will not be with an international competition where many fans are more likely to replicate the camaraderie of the rugby games but how it might thereafter apply in the domestic game. There again, though, it’s time for change. Football grounds have changed beyond all recognition with all seating and tight segregation.

But alcohol is sold at Scottish club games and not just to the corporate elites. Many clubs have bars in attached social clubs or in the stadiums that are used pre and post-match. Other fans fuel up before going to the game. This costs the club potential income and causes safety issues given that it has no control over what fans have consumed, yet the club is required to deal with the consequences. Ending the alcohol ban at matches is simply acknowledging what’s already happening while allowing for its limited expansion. 

Strict criteria, of course, should be applied. Certain high-risk fixtures could be designated as alcohol free. Sales to away fans could be precluded where the risk is higher or restricted to season-ticket holders only where control is arguably greater. The types of alcohol sold can be limited, as can the nature of the cannister it’s provided in. Taking it to the seats can be banned, as can its sale during the game. 

These are all criteria that can be imposed by a licensing board following police advice. 

I recall the late David Taylor, when chief executive of the SFA, telling me that in Germany, some fixtures were dry and others had the ABV content restricted.

The clubs, as with other licensed premises, will have the responsibility and will face consequences for failures. The evidence from elsewhere suggests that clubs monitor it assiduously given the opportunities it affords them. If they don’t, then as with a pub, they’ll lose their licence.

It’s time for a level, though different, playing field for the two sports. 

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