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Spiers on Sport: flags, banners and football's Big Brother state

These were crazy headlines, were they not? "Fans Banned From Taking Banners Into Football Grounds." Not for a first time, people in Scotland are asking, what is going on here?

In their wisdom - and they may be right - police in Perth had originally banned all fans from bringing flags or banners into the ground for the Boxing Day clash between St Johnstone and Celtic. The ban has now been lifted.

We don't need to beat about the bush here. St Johnstone supporters hardly have a reputation for setting the world alight. This flag-ban was aimed at Celtic supporters, and quite a few of them were irate at the development.

There are wider issues at play here but, as a starting base, the police probably had a point. Flares, smoke-bombs and pyrotechnics are becoming an increasing problem in our stadiums, and it has been noticed that flags and banners are being used by fans to camouflage them being set alight.

In this context, it is merely a case of trying to tackle the problem. I must admit, I've lost little sleep over this whole flares issue, but the police view it very differently. For them, spectator safety is paramount. Fair enough.

But two wider issues are relevant amid this fuss. The first is a problem which Celtic FC are wrestling with in regard to a section of their support. The second issue is that of the politicisation of football, and the intrusion on civil liberty.

Celtic certainly have a problem. The wrecking done to Fir Park a few weeks back was an acute embarrassment for the club, with scores of seats kicked in or damaged by supporters.

On top of that, the Green Brigade issue of political slogans, Irish history and occasional IRA chants has reached a stage where Celtic have been forced to disperse the group or, in effect, shut down this section of their support.

The Green Brigade had many pluses, not least the amazing acoustics they could generate at Celtic Park. But their bad began to outweigh their good, especially in a FIFA-controlled football environment where politics is barred from football grounds, and so Celtic had no option but to muzzle them.

Beyond this, other football fans from all over Scotland are expressing increasing dismay at the Big Brother society which they feel is coming into force.

There are many roots to this, but one most certainly is the Offensive Behaviour at Football bill of 2011. The sheer botch of this legislation, and the confusion it is causing, has created one more problem which football could have done without.

There is now an air of "don't do" among football crowds which is aggravating supporters. Uglier aspects such as bigotry had to be dealt with - and some form of legislation did appear to be required - but it has now gone way beyond that.

In Scotland, various police forces are caught up in a minefield of interpretation, of what is and isn't allowed. So, some songs are fine, and some aren't. Some folk heroes can be cited, but others can't. This chant is okay, but that one isn't.

Many police officers themselves attest in private to being pretty brassed-off with the whole situation, while other police spokesmen do their level best to get on with a judicial system they have been lumbered with.

The truth is that football, in terms of its place in modern Scottish society, is in a pretty confused state. The conduct of supporters has become a hotly-disputed area.

I never thought I'd see the day, I must admit, when flags and banners might be banned from matches -even in this politically correct age.

One major problem is that many supporters, including those of Rangers and Celtic, place their club in a historic or cultural context, which gives rise to slogans or chants.

In this sense they are no different from Barcelona, Real Madrid and many others. Although, alas, in the west of Scotland, sometimes that football "baggage" is not what we want.

It will all be worked through. Perhaps in 20 years' time we'll look back and laugh at these daft controversies. Right now, though, football is unsure of its moorings.

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