WITH A POPULATION that only just eclipses the five million mark, it is no surprise that Scotland isn’t a major player in international football. However, when it comes to action off it, the Boys in Blue have cemented their place as one of the planet’s most passionate sets of supporters.
Ultras is probably not a word synonymous with the family friendly images that are conjured up when mentioning the Tartan Army, but it is one fitting of the pride and enthusiasm that Scotland has for its national team and various legions of fans have for their respective clubs. The quality of football might not place the national team alongside the world’s best, but the zealousness of their fan base certainly is.
And whilst the violence may have been largely taken away from the Tartan Army, they are still more than prepared to fight for their beliefs through other methods. While the odd skirmish abroad is commonplace for a large number of fans, that behaviour definitely doesn’t infiltrate their following on the same scale of yesteryear.
The thing that makes Scotland stand out from the crowd is its unique DNA. For such a small country, it is a divided nation on many cultural and historical fronts and football is just one of them. Rivalries between cities, political views, and even religion have carved out generations of battlers. A combative nature is ubiquitous with life north of the border and that surfaces in an infinite number of ways. In the purest sense, football mirrors the genetics of Scotland’s society to a tee.
The world of football is well-versed in the sectarian divide between the nation’s two most successful club sides and the Glasgow derby is universally accepted to be one of the fiercest on the planet. If you’ve never been, it should high up on your bucket list of derbies. It’s one of the few games where you feel the noise as much as you hear it. However, there are plenty more rivalries within the country and some were born solely through violence.
The heated contest between Aberdeen and Hibernian, particularly throughout the 1980s, is the paradigm of that promulgation. Clashes between the Aberdeen Soccer Casuals and the Capital City Suspects materialised mainly through a mutual ambition to be Scotland’s toughest firm, and this inevitably led to numerous confrontations both on the terraces and in the streets. Arrests and injuries were commonplace when these groups collided and the use of petrol bombs introduced a level of violence that the Scottish football scene had not previously witnessed.
There were, and still are, plenty of other club rivalries across the nation. However, as is the case with all of Britain, the combination of increased police intelligence and severe repercussions for offenders means that violence has dramatically fallen. Hooligans won’t ever be silenced completely, mind you, and a new generation of gangs are still very much crucial to the backdrop of football in the country.
Modern day fans may not find violence quite as easily as their predecessors but they try to make amends by creating an intimidating atmosphere inside the stadium. The use of pyrotechnics, smoke bombs and flares has become regular features at various Scottish grounds as the ‘internet generation’ borrows ideas from their continental contemporaries. It has become the latest issue for police to clamp down on – with two Aberdeen fans even facing jail for possession of flares during a January 2014 trip to Dundee United.
Football in Dundee is a microcosm of Scottish football culture. The city may be divided into two clubs, but for decades those rivals came together to battle enemies from further afield and that is largely the case when supporters of the national team unify to follow the Boys in Blue.
The unification of fans from rival clubs might seem like a natural progression when it comes to international football but it is easy to forget just how torn certain cultures of Scotland have been over the years. Some of the underlying issues have plagued sections of the population for centuries, so to see thousands of supporters turn out to follow their team all over Europe is a refreshing outcome – especially when you take into consideration the fact that the team hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1998.
For long periods, though, the Tartan Army scene was swamped by undertones of severe violence. This was particularly true throughout the 1970s and 80s, the heyday for hooliganism in Britain, and that was often highlighted with the bi-annual trips to Wembley, where they would face the Auld Enemy as part of the annual British Home Championships.
The 1977 edition of the contest saw Scotland triumph on English soil for the first time in a decade but the result was overshadowed by the post-match scenes in which the visiting supporters invaded the pitch before vandalising the Wembley turf and snapping the goalposts. There would be more violence during the subsequent visit to London two years later as over 300 arrests were made. Eventually the tournament would be scrapped in 1989 thanks primarily to the thuggish behaviour of fans from all competing nations. It should be noted that Scotland weren’t solely to blame; a number of brutish fans from across the Isles played their part in bringing an end to the fierce competition.
Those incidents in the late-70s were instrumental as authorities vowed to rid the game of hooliganism. The results were instantaneous as Scotland were crowned the best supporters at World Cup 1982.
Above all else, Scotland is a proud nation and that has transcended into worldwide acknowledgement for their fans. Ordinarily, wearing colours is against the norm of football casuals, especially on British shores, but the Tartan Army has somehow broken down that barrier with thousands turning up to Hampden Park kitted out in blue and sporting kilts. Showing their colours is a real feature of Scottish fans and they were even heralded at World Cup 1998 as one of the highlights of the tournament. The cauldron of noise that they created against Brazil in the Stade de France went a long way to establishing Scottish fans as some of the best international fans in the world alongside the Dutch.
That accolade at France ’98 is just one example of how the Tartan Army has become portrayed as a happy-go-lucky set of supporters and that public showing of love towards their team and country is something to be celebrated.
While there’s been a huge decrease in violent matters involving the Scotland fans, there are still the odd occasions where it does rise to the surface. The last competitive clash with England at Hampden Park – a Euro 2000 playoff – resulted in over 200 arrests and unsurprisingly a large proportion of those came from drunk and disorderly behaviour.
Whilst the recent friendly match against England went by without any real incidents, unlike many of the previous decades, it did highlight the ongoing friction between football’s oldest rivalries. However, in recent generations, the majority of those hostilities stem from issues outside of sport. In the case of November’s meeting, the recent vote for Scottish independence served as the root of antagonism from both sets of supporters.
Those disagreements surfaced most notably with the booing of national anthems. However, whilst it is easy to attribute those incidents to recent political events, it is actually something steeped in historical context and offers a telling insight into the unwavering passions pumping through the veins of every Scotland fan.
As with the club rivalries, football is merely an extension of the battleground for Scotland fans and that is certainly the case when it comes to the national anthem. It is easy to forget that the Tartan Army used ‘God Save The Queen’ as their song for many decades. The antipathy towards that grew over the years, and the fans weren’t shy about voicing their thoughts regarding the matter.
For years, the anthem would be met by a chorus of boos from the terraces. Evidently it had the desired impact as the authorities eventually made the decision to drop the song in favour of Scotland the Brave, which was subsequently replaced by the current Flower of Scotland. That battle was mirrored by fans of the rugby team; the war extended well beyond football.
As with the rest of Britain, a combination of advanced surveillance and increased punishment has contained the monster of football violence in Scotland. The issue of hooliganism in British football is now constrained to the occasional minor breakouts, which can only be positive thing. While the Tartan Army is ready for war, their use of deafening, unison singing and clever banners have made them one of football’s greatest sights.
The Scots are now viewed mainly as a fanatical group of supporters that are content with drinking, being merry, and supporting their team through thick and thin Often they’re likened to the Dutch and German fans, and with reason. They add colour to the realm of international football and millions will be praying that the team will finally end their 18-year wait tournament football by qualifying for Euro 2016.
By Liam Newman. Follow @thatliamnewman