The claim that domestic violence spikes after Old Firm matches may be a myth, according to researchers, but academics have nevertheless called for football clubs to use their "mass appeal" to promote healthy relationships.

Well-publicised findings suggesting men may be more likely to abuse their partners after Celtic play Rangers, or after a big England or Scotland match are misleading, researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University have claimed.

But they also allow football to be scapegoated as a trigger for domestic violence – offering offenders an excuse and masking the underlying causes.

A UK-wide study found the data behind reports linking a spike in cases to Old Firm results or the outcome of England World Cup games was often thin.

They fail to take account of factors such as increased policing on match days, differences in how crimes are recorded between forces and the large number of men who watch and support the sport, researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Glasgow and the University of Bristol claimed.

Instead, organisations surveyed, including survivors, police, specialist support groups, football authorities, government organisations and policymakers, stressed the ongoing nature of abusive behaviour.

One policymaker told researchers: “There’s a degree of scapegoating with alcohol because you don’t abuse just because you’ve had a drink – you abuse because you’re an abusive man who’s had a drink.”

Football was the same, he said. Support groups for victims of domestic abuse stressed abusive behaviour is about power and control and the contributory factors are complex.

Dr Nancy Lombard, Reader in Sociology and Social Policy at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “All stakeholders had concerns about the reliability and implications of data suggesting a causal link between football and domestic violence and abuse.

“Participants highlighted concerns about the existing evidence and the need to view violence and abuse as a pattern of ongoing behaviour, which cannot be reduced to an incident associated with a particular event such as a football match.

“Specialist domestic violence and abuse (DVA) service providers were concerned that focusing on football masks the underlying causes and potentially offers perpetrators excuses for their abusive behaviour."

While research into links between domestic abuse and factors such as football or alcohol has proliferated the links between them may be misinterpreted, misrepresented and misunderstood, she added.

The results of focus groups and one-to-one interviews were conducted in Scotland and England for the study, have been published in the Journal of Gender-Based Violence.

As well as disputing the link between football and DVA, contributors also questioned the strength of other reported trigger factors.

However they concluded more could be done by governments, the media, and supporter agencies to promote anti-violence messaging through sport.

In particular, stakeholders said football as the UK's national sport, has a social responsibility to highlight the issue in a similar way clubs support campaigns against racism and homophobia. They said football clubs should use their popularity and reach to highlight the work of local services for victims and reinforce messages about ‘healthy’ non-abusing relationships.

The study praised Football United Against Domestic Violence, a Women’s Aid campaign which provides resources and training to players and fans in England.

Brenna Jessie, spokeswoman for Scottish Women’s Aid, said the research was welcome: "The urge to pin domestic abuse on alcohol, football, the weather, faith – basically anything other than the abuser – has been a frustration of ours for a really long time," she said. "For as long as we do this we’re not holding anything or anyone to account in any real or meaningful way. The person responsible for abusing their power and their (ex) partner is the perpetrator, and all eyes should be on them."

There is no drop in demand for domestic violence services during the summer break, she added:

"Domestic abuse isn’t a game. Across Scotland women, children and young people are living in fear - this doesn’t end when the football season is over."

"All of us here in Scotland have a part to play in ending domestic abuse and that includes but is not limited to football clubs and fans.”

Scotland’s 24/7 Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234