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Starved of on-field fireworks, fans turn to smoke and flares

IT is the burning issue of the moment.

The Scottish Football Association was fined after Croatia fans set off flares in the visiting end of Hampden in October. P
The Scottish Football Association was fined after Croatia fans set off flares in the visiting end of Hampden in October. P

But once all the sulphur dissipates, what can be stated with clarity about the self-respecting Scottish football supporter's sudden apparent fixation with flares and smoke bombs? The use of such missiles characterised this weekend's Scottish Cup fourth-round meetings between Motherwell and Albion Rovers and Falkirk and Rangers - the latter required some hasty repairs of the SPFL Championship club's £450,000 artificial surface - but is there anything more to it than the actions of a few misguided individuals?

Firstly, of course, it is worth saying that the Scottish football fan does not operate in isolation - even those who habitually reside on the sparsely populated terraces of the lower division. The use of flares and smoke bombs is de rigeur amongst self-styled ultra movements on the continent and at the moment Britain merely seems to be catching up with the trend. Both the Croatian and Scottish Football Associations were fined after fans of the Balkan nation set flares off behind the goal at Hampden during a World Cup qualifier in October, while, south of the border, Deputy Chief Constable Andy Holt, the national lead on football policing for the Association of Chief Police Officers, admitted a near 140% increase "in the use of flares and pyrotechnics compared to the previous season".

This culminated in an incident at a recent Aston Villa match in which the assistant referee Dave Bryan was struck on the back of the neck by a smoke bomb thrown by visiting Tottenham fans, and the authorities launching a new campaign to raise awareness this week, even if everything required to tackle such matters is already written into the existing laws of the land.

It is already an offence for a person to enter or attempt to enter a football ground while in possession of a flare, smoke bomb or firework. And regardless of recent newspaper stories about children as young as eight smuggling them in, the law regards smoke bombs as seriously as flares, and fans have been given three-month custodial sequences just for possessing - not throwing - them within a stadium.

While such activities are clearly foolish and potentially dangerous - St Johnstone fans let a smoke bomb off in the rickety old wooden main stand in which they themselves were accommodated at Cappielow in the Scottish League Cup this season - they clearly tie in with a wider fault line in the modern game: the perception among fans that there just are not enough genuine pyrotechnics to go round any more.

There is clearly a desire to add colour and excitement to an environment which can often seem corporate and sterile, the latter perhaps particularly so in Scotland right now.

You could read a similar rejection of authority into the Green Brigade's occasionally incendiary use of banners at Celtic, while debates continue to rage over safe standing areas and a partial reintroduction of alcohol into Scottish football grounds.

"It has obviously come from the continent where it has been part of the culture for years," said Paul Goodwin, of fans' body Supporters Direct Scotland. "We have not really had it here, although it has been around the edges of our game for a while. Fans who have gone abroad or seen it abroad are trying to add that kind of glamour and excitement . . . but I don't think there is any defence for flares at all.

"Nobody can condone the fact they are being used," he added. "The fact is they have been trying to eradicate them across Europe for years. As a fans organisation we are desperate to get that excitement, glamour and vibrancy back into football too but our message to the fans would be to look for other ways they can introduce it.

"The singing sections that have been successfully introduced at places like Partick Thistle and Hibernian, and things like safe standing, are far better ways of how it can be done. If you work with the authorities and the clubs you have a far better chance to do things together, rather than standing outside. That is what we would encourage people to do."

On that subject, according to Goodwin, slow but steady progress is being made in the SPFL's relations with their supporter base, with a fans' charter introduced in February, and Supporters Direct Scotland coming forward with nine or 10 academically researched documents by April/May time on subjects such as safe standing and the reintroduction of alcohol on match days.

Indeed, in the short-term at least, the civil liberties of fans are only likely to be diminished by it all, as police are forced to search more thoroughly for these devices as fans queue at turnstiles. There may be no smoke without fire, but Scottish supporters may discover that making their points with flares and smoke bombs is only clouding their arguments.

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