It’s a brisk December evening in Glasgow as sixty thousand fans flock to the city’s east end to watch Celtic take on Real Betis of Spain in the final game of the Europa League group stages.
If there is one thing that Celtic Park is renowned for on European nights, it’s noise. But as the teams enter the fray, the usual deafening crescendo that accompanies them is missing. Even as the teams kick off, an almost eerie silence envelops the stadium which continues for most of the game.
The silence inside the stadium has little to do with what is happening on the field of play, an entertaining encounter which Celtic win 3-2. Instead, it’s the latest in a series of high-profile and ultimately successful protests by the Celtic support against the appointment of Bernard Higgins of Police Scotland to a position as Head of Security at the club.
Like all successful protests, the campaign against Higgins was well-organised and widespread, with a coalition of fan organisations taking part. But it was also deep-rooted in a very real and justified anger. An internal appointment like this would quite often go under the radar at football clubs, but on this occasion it involved an individual whose policies had a severe impact on the lives of football fans across Scotland.
As Police Scotland’s strategic lead for football, Higgins oversaw a drastic change in culture in the policing of football fans, coinciding with the introduction of the (now repealed) Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. The legislation gave the police far-reaching powers to arrest football fans on spurious grounds, with hundreds of working-class supporters being needlessly hauled through the courts.
For those unfamiliar with the legislation, it often played out as such: a fan goes to football, supports their team, joins in with some singing, and leaves the stadium. Police then sift through footage of the game and decide the fan has been singing something (for example, a song about Irish republicanism) which some nameless person could find offensive. The police then proceed to stage a dawn raid on the supporter’s house.
The supporter is arrested and charged. Their name is published in the newspapers, leading to the loss of their job and consequences for future prospects, and they are dragged through the courts for years. Often the charges would be chucked out, but the effect is the same—young lives left in turmoil due to an aggressive and disproportionate style of policing under the command of Bernard Higgins. To have that same person in charge of safety and security at their own club was simply unpalatable to the Celtic support.
‘For Celtic fans, there will not be many who don’t know at least one person whose life has been turned upside down by Bernard Higgins and Police Scotland,’ says Paul Quigley, one of the organisers of the campaign. ‘Tactics like dawn raids, like kettling, attempts to arrest fans on false grounds. Higgins had a hand in all of this. This guy being rewarded by our own club was a step too far.’
To football fans in Scotland, Higgins represents a culture of policing that’s both disproportionate and discriminatory. The experience in terms of surveillance and police harassment in going to a football game is in marked contrast to that of attending another sporting event, like rugby. The assumption that many make—with some justification—is that there is a class element to this distinction.
At the forefront of the campaign against that legislation and Higgins has been the Green Brigade, a group of Celtic ultras known for their left-wing, Irish republican, and internationalist values. Celtic was a club founded to raise money for the poor Irish immigrants in Glasgow, and those values of solidarity and struggle remain deeply etched into the psyche of much of the support.
Among other community work, the Green Brigade organises an annual food bank collection outside Celtic Park. This year—at the height of the campaign against Higgins—the collectors were apprehended by police and then fined for an apparent parking violation. Many doubted it was a coincidence.
The hierarchy of the club have rarely shared the politics of the fans, leading to a chasm between those in the boardroom and those in the stands, which has on occasion escalated into open conflict. When former Labour minister John Reid was appointed chairman of Celtic in 2007, he faced protests and was called a ‘war criminal’ by the Celtic Trust group of shareholders due to his role in the Iraq War. Ian Livingston, a member of the House of Lords, came under pressure from fans to resign from the club’s board after voting to cut child tax credits, with a petition saying his position was ‘incompatible’ with the club’s original mission. Rarely though have Celtic fans been as united on an issue as in their opposition to Higgins, and on this occasion the strength of feeling of the fans could not be ignored.
‘We started an open letter that was signed by all the main groups, supporters clubs and podcasts and websites,’ explains Quigley. ‘That demonstrated beyond doubt that it wasn’t just an issue that pertained to the Green Brigade or some people on social media. It elicited strong feelings across the spectrum of the Celtic support. That helped send a message to the club that they can’t always ride roughshod over the feelings of the fans, and it serves as a reminder to the supporters of the power we have when we work together.’
Of course, it’s not just at Celtic where the power of fans has been underestimated. The botched attempts to form a breakaway European Super League were only halted by the fan protests at stadiums in England, leading to an embarrassing climbdown from the clubs involved and the announcement of a fan-led review into ownership structures.
These episodes lay bare some of the wider contradictions of modern football. Football is only made special by the passion of ordinary people, the fans who are the lifeblood of clubs all over the world. The season of empty stadiums caused by lockdown showed just how soulless the game is without these supporters. Yet despite this startlingly obvious reality, in many ways the disconnect between those in charge of the game and the fans has never been clearer.
The game has become increasingly run in the interests of capital, with foreign owners buying clubs as cash cows or playthings or sometimes both. Football—a game loved for its richness of skill, technique, colour, and fervour—has fast become a rat race towards the riches of capital and profit.
Due to its smaller share of TV revenue, the Scottish game has been somewhat insulated from the worst excesses of the new hypercapitalist model of football that has taken hold in Europe’s major leagues. Yet the challenge for fans is largely the same—to work collectively to wrestle back power from the billionaire owners and have more of a say in how their clubs are run.
In the campaign against Bernard Higgins—like the protests against the Super League—fans showed the strength of collective organising and protest. But having some form of fan ownership of clubs must remain the goal if these victories are to be turned into something more concrete.
In 1994, when Celtic were saved from bankruptcy after a bitter struggle with the board at the time, it was famously declared, ‘The battle is over. The rebels have won.’ In this instance, the rebels have once again won the battle—but the war has yet to be decided.