Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 14, 2023



The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-10439, in the name of Maree Todd, on the role of football in Scottish society and communities. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button.


The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport (Maree Todd)

Few issues manage to unite members in this Parliament. However, football—proving the famous Bill Shankly quote about it being more important than life and death—appears to be one such issue. I welcome the support across the chamber and from all parliamentary groups for today’s motion for debate, and I look forward to hearing members’ contributions.

I am sure that members were shocked, as I was, to see the proposed guidelines on taking passengers to sporting events in Scotland, which the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain published for consultation last week. The consultation, which was launched without any prior engagement with the Scottish Government, the Scottish football authorities or supporters in Scotland, seeks views on a range of restrictions that relate to carriage of supporters to sporting events by public service vehicles—coaches, in other words—and which, it is purported, would bring Scotland into line with England and Wales. The list of sporting events to which the new guidelines would apply are all, and only, football matches. The guidelines would therefore not apply to a coach full of supporters going to Murrayfield to see the rugby or one taking people to a concert or any other event.

It is extremely difficult to see how the proposals could be workable in any circumstance, but they are especially impractical and demeaning in the current positive circumstances in which our national game finds itself, and when no evidence has been offered to suggest that they are necessary.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I agree with everything that the minister has said so far. The rules for coaches are not appropriate. However, would the minister accept that there is an element of antisocial behaviour around football? We have people urinating and drinking alcohol in the street in my constituency, and celebrations by both Rangers and Celtic fans have been a major problem for my constituents in Glasgow.

Maree Todd

Mr Mason and I discussed those issues very recently in the chamber. I certainly acknowledge that there is a small minority of fans whose behaviour requires attention and effort from everyone involved who wants to ensure that the game of football, which we all love—it is our national game and there is a huge level of positivity about football in Scotland—is inclusive of absolutely everybody. Mr Mason is correct that some of the behaviour of a small number of fans is particularly challenging. However, I do not think that the fans who were particularly troublesome in his constituency, as Mr Mason highlights, would have the same need for a coach to travel to fixtures as, for example, people in my constituency, who travel very long distances to watch football and who cause no problem whatsoever.

John Mason misses the point completely. Matters relating to the issue should be dealt with by the authorities in Scotland. That is the main issue that we are all united around, is it not?

Maree Todd

Well—that is a very welcome change, indeed.

The regular organised supporter coaches that attend league matches the length and breadth of the country every week present little or no issues from a football safety officer perspective or a policing perspective. Many have local arrangements with pubs and clubs for pre-match access for a beer and a bite to eat, whether it be a substantial meal or a microwaved scotch pie.

However, the proposed guidelines portray a travelling football support that requires to be highly regulated in how, when and where they travel by bus, in order to avoid risk to public safety and order. That portrayal is appalling: it is misleading and wrong, and it bears no relation to reality. It paints a picture of Scottish football that I simply do not recognise.

The truth is that the vast majority of supporters’ clubs and organised buses actually aid in maintaining public order. If one looks at any bus travelling this weekend to any match, one will see men of all ages, but one will also see grandparents, grandchildren, young people, families, women and girls. Indeed, organised buses and supporters’ clubs often enable fans who might not otherwise get to matches to do so. For every fan who travels on a bus, there is potentially one car off the road, so organised buses play their part in tackling climate change and cutting emissions, too.

I welcome the fact that, under pressure, the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain chose to withdraw the consultation.

Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

I, too, welcome the change of heart from the senior traffic commissioner. His failure to consult was wrong indeed, and failure to consult often leads to problems.

We have a situation in relation to the Scottish Assessors Association’s fundamental change of methodology for assessing rateable values for football clubs and stadiums. I know that the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League have written to the Government. Would the minister persuade her colleagues to consider the briefing that the SPFL and SFA have sent the Government on the subject?

Maree Todd

I am always happy to speak up in Government for the SFA and other sporting governing bodies. At my core, I absolutely believe in the power of sport, and that sport should be celebrated. I agree that sport reflects society and that, sometimes, there are challenges. Through sport, and football, we have an opportunity to lead the way in addressing some of the social challenges that we face.

I strongly urge that future proposals be developed with the full involvement of the Scottish Government, the Scottish football governing bodies and—most important—supporters and fans. I have written directly to the commissioners to make that request.

However, the stramash has also provided our Parliament with a welcome opportunity to highlight the positive contribution that football makes to so many aspects of Scottish life. Never in my lifetime as a Scotland fan have we had such a purple patch at national level.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The minister rightly spoke earlier about the impact that football can have on helping to sustain public order. She also talked about the transcendent qualities of football. Will she join me in paying tribute to the many youth work clubs around the country that use football as a means of bringing young people together to give them skills and interpersonal development—sometimes to great effect in terms of a reduction of antisocial behaviour in their communities?

I can give you the time back for all the interventions, minister.

Maree Todd

Absolutely. I am more than happy to support that cause and I hope that we hear more about how football is used not simply for young people but to bring together everyone in society, and about how its power is used for good.

We might not have gotten the result that we wanted on Tuesday night at Hampden, but everything else about that sell-out match was fantastic. The national team has won an incredible five out of five qualifiers for the European championships in Germany next summer, so back-to-back qualifications for that tournament are a real possibility. Not only are fans flocking to international matches in huge numbers, but domestic Scottish football attendances—as many members will be aware—are, by some distance, ahead of the rest of Europe on a population basis. Recently published figures show that more than 5 million people attended matches in the 2022-23 season, which is a record high.

It is not just men’s football that is growing. The women’s game is going from strength to strength, with the creation of the Scottish Women’s Premier League and the first-ever women’s Scottish cup final being held at Hampden in 2022. Last season’s SWPL title went down to the final day, with any one of three teams having been capable of winning it, and our national women’s team is inspiring people, especially girls, to take up the sport.

“Accelerate our game” is the first-ever strategy for the entire girls’ and women’s game in Scotland and sets ambitious targets in participation, performance and club football. With endorsement of our strategy from the Union of European Football Associations, Scotland is considered to be a best-practice model, although this week’s news reports still show how far we have to go to create a truly equitable approach.

We have a strong track record on creating inclusive opportunities. Cerebral palsy football and the homeless world cup are two powerful examples, and Scottish Para-Football, under the leadership of Ashley Reid, runs parallel football for participants for whom the mainstream game is not accessible, including walking football, powerchair football, football memories and autism football. Scotland is seen internationally as a leader in the area, having recently won a UEFA gold award, and we are very honoured to be hosting amputee football’s nations league in Fife in October, which I hope to be able to attend.

With over 2,500 clubs across the country and over 900,000 people being involved in one way or another every week, football is helping to deliver on key policy priorities for the Scottish Government. Football is at the heart of every community, with 83 per cent of our population living within 10 miles of an SPFL ground—over 4.5 million people. However, research also shows that those who live closest to the stadiums are three times more likely than others to be living in poverty.

Football is playing its part in tackling poverty and addressing linked challenges such as physical and mental wellbeing, education and attainment, employability and social isolation.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Will the minister take an intervention?

Do I have time, Deputy Presiding Officer?

We have quite a bit of time in hand, minister.

Thank you. I will take an intervention from Ben Macpherson.

Ben Macpherson

I thank the minister for taking my intervention. I fully endorse her points about the wide-ranging positive effects that football has on our communities.

Will she, as I do, pay tribute to the efforts in my Edinburgh Northern and Leith constituency that are undertaken by the Spartans Community Foundation, Street Soccer Scotland and the Hibernian Community Foundation? They provide so much opportunity and so many wellbeing improvements across my constituency.

Maree Todd

Absolutely. I heartily endorse the efforts that are going on in Ben Macpherson’s constituency. However, I say to Parliament that such work is replicated all over Scotland. The power of football is being used in every corner of Scotland.

I want to highlight the work of a club that I had the absolute pleasure of visiting in August. Bonnyrigg Rose Football Club offers a wide range of activities for men, for mums and for anyone who might be isolated. Many of the people who benefit from the support that is on offer there might have been reluctant to seek support through more traditional routes. Rather than accessing healthcare or mental health help through traditional routes, those people are able to go to their community club and meet professional counsellors who can help them with a range of issues, from domestic abuse and neurodiversity to struggles with addictions. It is phenomenal.

The work of clubs such as Bonnyrigg Rose is absolutely priceless, but the social return on investment can now be measured through UEFA’s model. It shows that the impact of community participation in the club was worth £3.95 million.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I will, if that is okay with the Deputy Presiding Officer.

I call Richard Leonard.

Richard Leonard

I thank the minister for taking the intervention. I remind Parliament that I am convener of the Professional Footballers Association Scotland parliamentary interest group. In this debate about the role of football in Scottish society, I wonder whether the minister, as the minister who is responsible for mental wellbeing as well as sport, is prepared to lend her support to the campaign for recognition that dementia in former professional football players is an industrial injury.

Maree Todd

I am keenly aware of the debate around dementia and its association with football, and the association with head injuries and other diseases and concerns that have been acquired through sport. A lot of work is going on on that—not least on whether women might be more susceptible than men to concussion. The evidence base is not entirely clear yet, but like everyone who has an interest in the game, I am watching keenly as that evidence base develops to see what we can do—first, to make participation in sport safer in the future and, secondly, to ensure that people who have acquired injuries through sport are supported in later life.

It is a sadness to me that the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain appear to know so little about the rich hinterland of Scottish football. How else to explain how they arrived at the proposed guidelines, which failed to recognise the reality of being a travelling football supporter in a country that is 98 per cent rural? It is unclear what problem they thought they were trying to fix, unless it was to bring Scotland into line with guidelines that are used elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Imposing unnecessary and unhelpful rules without understanding the consequences of that suggests that this is yet another area in which we need the powers to make such guidelines for ourselves. A four-nations approach—[Interruption.]—to issues of transport safety is absolutely still important, but there is no reason why that could not be achieved through co-operation and collaboration, where needed. [Interruption.]

Would Rachael Hamilton like to make an intervention?

I would just like to point out to the minister that co-operation works both ways.

Maree Todd

It certainly does, so, having such guidelines imposed on us without any consultation—with not even the Government, never mind the governing bodies, the fans or the clubs—is absolutely outrageous. I am pleased that my Conservative colleagues agree with me that having issues imposed on Scotland simply in order to align them with England, without any consultation, is absolutely not good enough. I thank them for their support on that.

I hope that members’ contributions to the debate will show the commissioners how strongly Scotland’s Parliament feels about the issue and about football more widely. I urge the commissioners to listen to what we have to say, then to think again—not least about whether the guidelines are needed at all—and, at the very least, to adopt a fair-play approach to the process.

I move,

That the Parliament acknowledges that football contributes significantly to the cultural, social, economic and sporting fabric of Scotland, including through the work of the Scottish FA, which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2023; recognises the important role that football clubs play in their communities, supporting a wide range of Scottish Government priorities; welcomes in particular the growth of inclusive opportunities in football in Scotland; notes that the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain have withdrawn the consultation on proposed new guidelines for fans travelling to football matches in Scotland on public hire vehicles, and calls for any future consultation on and development of Scottish guidelines to be fully informed through the involvement of the Scottish Government, football clubs, authorities and, especially, fans and supporters’ groups to best meet Scottish needs and interests.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

As members will have picked up, we have extra time. Members who wish to display their debating skills will be indulged in that. I invite those who are looking to participate but have not yet pressed their request-to-speak buttons to do so as soon as possible.

I call Stephen Kerr, for a generous seven minutes.


Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I saw what the Presiding Officer did there on “extra time”—boom boom!—in the debate. Well done, Presiding Officer.

My goodness me! The Government started off by talking about how we were going to be united on football and then spent the next 15 or 16 minutes creating division where it does not need to be. That speech was for the previous motion, but they could not be bothered to update it, so they gave the old speech instead. It is ridiculous, frankly, that the minister could not live up to her opening paragraph about the fact that the issue can unite us.

Now that I am a back bencher, it is a rare privilege for me to respond to a Government motion in the Parliament. I will give some first reflections on Scottish football over the past week.

Tuesday’s match was only a friendly. As Steve Clarke said,

“sometimes you have to take your medicine”.

The men’s team will come back stronger, because what is being achieved by Steve Clarke and the Scotland men’s team is truly exciting to watch.

The Football Association needs to come up with an anthem for when England plays. It is that simple. It really should not use “God Save the King”; that is the anthem of the whole United Kingdom, not England.

Matters that relate to football fans travelling to and from matches in Scotland, in buses or by any other means of transportation, are for the authorities in Scotland—end of story. There is no need to talk about that any more. It has been dealt with. It does not exist. Those guidelines have been withdrawn, and rightly so.

In a debate in the chamber last week, I said something about our not living our lives as

“isolated beings; even though we have our individual identities and preferences, we are woven together”—[Official Report, 7 September 2023; c 44.]

in society. I believe in the power of community and the importance of the identity of a community. I believe in civic pride. Whenever I think about football and the community, my mind goes back to 1978. Yes, I am that old—I can remember 1978.

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I apologise to Mr Kerr for interrupting, but I want to hear what he has to say. Could I very gently ask for your guidance about asking members to speak through their microphones?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you for that point of order. I was going to make that point myself. I did not know whether, with the projection that Mr Kerr has, it would have been picked up anyway, but it is valuable advice to Mr Kerr and to everybody.

You can have the time back, Mr Kerr. Please continue.

Stephen Kerr

I am terribly surprised that you could not hear me up there—it is not very far.

I think about 1978—[Interruption.]

I will pull the microphone down—how is that?


Stephen Kerr

My first exposure in 1978 to the power of football and civic good relates to my hometown’s football team, Forfar Athletic. Archie Knox had the managerial reins at Station park, and he would go on to do other things with Sir Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith, but the Loons—[Interruption.]

We need microphones that hang down, do we not? That is another suggestion.

The Loons had reached the semi-final of the league cup. They were to play Rangers—the mighty Glasgow Rangers of Jock Wallace, John Greig, Derek Johnstone and Davie Cooper. The game was supposed to take place in the November of the year before, but bad weather had forced it to be played on a Monday night in February 1978. There was a huge build-up to the game. I think that the whole population of Forfar travelled to Hampden park, in Glasgow, for the match. We were bursting with pride—in the team and in the town. As I remember it, even Forfar’s Rangers supporters had got behind Forfar Athletic.

On the night itself, the part-time players of Forfar Athletic took the mighty Glasgow Rangers to extra time. I suppose that, realistically speaking, the result was inevitable, but you can dream. That night, even though we were defeated, we all floated home to Forfar, because it was a dream fulfilled. We—I emphasise “we”—had nearly caused a football sensation, the “we” being the team and the people of Forfar.

What has not changed since 1978 is the profound significance of football clubs to communities and the positive impact that they can have. It is my belief in community that leads me to urge caution against one-size-fits-all policies that neglect the importance of individuals within the wider context of a community. Politicians should empower, not instruct, the people. People are agents, not objects.

Football clubs remind us of that by serving individual needs while bringing communities together. For young people, football clubs inspire dreams of playing. For working people, they offer 90 minutes of escape from life’s stresses. Football brings people together, promotes intergenerational companionship and strengthens family bonds. It creates cherished memories. For me, growing up, it was about going to Station park with my dad, complete with the half-time Forfar bridie—and, later, taking my daughter and sons to the football. [Interruption.] Those who have not partaken of a Forfar bridie have missed out on one of life’s great culinary delights. I urge my colleagues to try bridies.

The family outings that I am describing resonate across our nation. We should be mindful, as policy and law makers, of what will strengthen and give support to the institution of the family. Communitarian identity cannot be imposed from above; it happens when local people come together and act voluntarily, and football plays a powerful role in bringing communities together. Its impact extends beyond the stadium, as fans gather in pubs and cafes before and after games, which supports local businesses.

Football can also combat the blight of loneliness. We do not speak enough about loneliness in this Parliament. I believe that isolation and loneliness are one of the biggest silent killers in our society, and football brings people together.

Increasingly, football clubs offer work experience to young people, especially in the realms of social media and marketing. They create and lay career pathways that many go on to follow.

Through charity work, football clubs support vulnerable community members and global causes. Although there are numerous examples in central Scotland that I would like to draw on, I want to bring members’ attention to the work being done by East Stirlingshire Football Club, which has recently announced ECO vision—a project that aims to make the club carbon neutral by 2035. This season alone, East Stirlingshire is offsetting carbon emissions from all away game travelling, planting a tree for every 10 programmes sold at home games, and using recycled materials for all new goods sold.

At the heart of East Stirlingshire’s project is sustainability. However, sadly, for many football clubs across the country, financial sustainability is becoming more difficult because of football inflation, rising costs in the general economy, and changes in how people participate in and support football. Running a football club in the lower divisions is therefore becoming increasingly difficult financially.

I believe that, because of the societal benefits that local football clubs create, the Scottish Parliament has a duty to explore ways in which we can get behind them. We should explore how we might use football to create more social good and create sustainable and tangible better outcomes. During the three minutes or so of her speech in which the minister was being positive, she spoke about matters that are of vital importance. I mentioned loneliness; she mentioned physical, mental and emotional health. Such issues are best tackled through the social interaction and cohesion that local football clubs can create.

Football is good for people and for the local economy. I am not arguing for a blank cheque for football clubs, but public bodies as well as third sector organisations ought to be exploring how to develop deeper connections with football clubs to harness their broad appeal to power social change and social good across the entire demography of our communities.

Football clubs are at the heart of our communities. They bring people from different generations together, strengthen family bonds, and bring individuals a sense of identity and civic pride that is shaped by a shared history and local culture. Football is at the heart of Scottish life. We, in the Parliament, should recognise and encourage the creative and positive reach of Scottish football.

I hope that, in the remainder of our debate, we will hear less grievance and grudge and much more celebration of what community football clubs are achieving for their communities right across our nation.

I call Neil Bibby for a similarly generous six minutes.


Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the chance to speak in the debate. First, I must declare an interest. I love football, which is why I am leading the debate for Scottish Labour. Secondly, I must declare that, sadly, I am not any good at football, which is also why I am leading the debate for Scottish Labour.

Of course, I am not alone in my passion for football. It is not just a sport in Scotland; it is woven into the very fabric of our society. In his book on football, the legendary sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney quoted Arthur Hopcraft, who wrote that football

“is built into the urban psyche, as much a common experience to our children as ... school”

and extended family. Hopcraft went on to say:

“It is not a phenomenon; it is an everyday matter.”

This week, in a match between Scotland and England in Glasgow, we celebrated 150 years of international association football. Football has been central to the life of our communities over the past century and a half. As other members have said, it is our national game and a force for good. It is important that we recognise that anniversary, as it makes us reflect on just how much the game has grown and evolved. Today, we should celebrate football and debate what more we can and should do to support it.

Before I turn to that, though, I want to welcome the halting of the traffic commissioners’ proposed guidelines. The draconian proposals, which included restrictions on arrival and departure times and guidelines on pick-up points and reporting to a dedicated police officer, were set to punish football fans in Scotland. The proposals were completely unnecessary and would have interfered in people’s lives when they were merely trying to watch the game that they love. That is why we completely opposed them and will support the motion today.

César Luis Menotti, Argentina’s former world cup-winning manager, said:

“football belongs to the working class and has the size, nobility and generosity to allow everyone to enjoy it as a spectacle.”

I agree that everyone should be able to enjoy it. Of course, we should expect football fans to behave appropriately and responsibly, but—let us be honest here—there is often a snobbery on the part of the establishment towards working-class football fans that is not felt by fans of other sports. We in Scotland know what happens when the Government fails to listen to fans and overreacts. The prime example of that was the pushing through of the discredited—now, thankfully, repealed—Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, which again unfairly targeted football fans and treated them as second-class citizens.

The Scottish Government should reflect on its own track record because, sadly, many fans do not view the Government as a friend and an ally of football, which is regrettable. In fact, the Government should be the game’s biggest fan and champion. Just as the Scottish Government has recently stated its intention to reset its relationship with businesses, perhaps it should also reset its relationship with football fans and clubs.

John Mason

I take the member’s point that football fans should not be unfairly discriminated against, but would he accept that it is at football games that we have fans—especially Rangers and Celtic fans—shouting hatred at each other and voicing hatred of the Irish and of Catholics, and that that does not happen at netball, rugby and basketball games?

Neil Bibby

Of course, we want fans to behave responsibly. I was just going to come on to the issue of relationships between clubs, because, although I have called for a reset of relationships between Government and fans, I also think that there needs to be reset of relations between our clubs, as opposition fans continue to receive limited or no allocations at away games.

I do not accept the premise of what Mr Mason has said. It is often said that people who attend other sporting events are impeccably behaved and that it is only football fans who misbehave. I do not accept that at all. As I said earlier, football is a force for good.

Stephen Kerr

Does the member agree that we in Scotland have a completely different relationship with football than we do with all the sports that John Mason just listed, and that the traditions and history of Scottish football are something to be respected and admired? John Mason’s contributions in this debate so far all seem to geared towards somehow belittling Scottish football. We should not be doing that. Today, of all days, we should be celebrating it.

Neil Bibby

I agree that we should be celebrating football and the force for good that football is, and I want to pay tribute to all our coaches and players, especially those at the grass roots who give up their time for their teams.

We invest in football because we recognise that it can reach people who Government and the authorities often cannot. There are numerous examples of great charitable work done by our clubs on issues such as employability and tackling obesity. One example that I want to highlight is the fantastic street stuff initiative, a partnership programme run by Renfrewshire Council, St Mirren FC and the police, which provides free weekly activities, primarily in the evenings and weekends, to young people throughout Renfrewshire. Since 2009, street stuff’s approach has contributed to a reduction of 65 per cent in reported youth disorder and antisocial behaviour. Such initiatives provide evidence to show the multiple benefits that football brings to our communities and society, and that is why investment in the game is vital.

Although we celebrate 150 years of international football this week, we must also remember the disgraceful banning of women’s football between 1921 and 1974. It is hugely welcome to see women’s football grow and thrive in recent years, and we must recognise that that has not happened by chance; it has happened because of the pioneering work of many inspirational women—inspirational not only to girls but to all of us—across Scotland, including those at Glasgow City FC, who I recently met. They told me of a time when they were forced to use car headlights in place of floodlights in order to play. That reinforces the need to reverse cuts to playing fields and to invest in sports facilities in order to make them accessible to everybody who wants to play the game.

Finally, we also need to see positive reform to support the game and to ensure that the interests of the fans are always at the heart of the game. Independent research by the Scottish Football Supporters Association has revealed a disconnect between supporters and those who run the game. Scottish Labour therefore welcomes the publication of the fan-led review by the Scottish Football Supporters Association. We are carefully considering all the recommendations in that report, and we urge the Scottish Government to publish its own response to the review as soon as possible. We should also have a full parliamentary debate on the issue.

Football has played a crucial role in our society for 150 years. With a reset in relations with fans, a reversal of cuts to facilities and reform of the game, we can and should make our national game fit for the next 150 years.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

It is, of course, a great privilege to speak in this debate.

I draw members’ attention to the fact that I am the convener of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on the future of football in Scotland.

Love it, as I do, or loathe it, as I am sure others do, it is a fact that football is an integral part of Scottish society and is therefore of great value to all the communities that we represent. Let us consider some of the statistics on those who support the game. In the previous season—the 2022-23 season—the SPFL enjoyed record attendances, which exceeded 5 million people. That is the highest attendance per capita anywhere in Europe. Furthermore, a study by the Fraser of Allander Institute showed that the activities of SPFL clubs and spending by fans in league and cup competitions as far back as 2017-18 contributed more than £400 million to the Scottish economy and helped to support more than 9,000 jobs.

Stephen Kerr will be happy to hear that I will not dwell on this for too long, but that is why the traffic commissioners consultation on proposed new guidelines for fans travelling to football matches in Scotland was so outrageous and misplaced. I am glad that that has now been withdrawn. I take on board Stephen Kerr’s comments. We cannot get fairer than that.

Fans are the lifeblood of the game. The recently published fan-led review of Scottish football, which I just mentioned, is perhaps another demonstration of that.

While I talk about fans, I want to touch on John Mason’s points, as he made a couple of interventions about them. His points cannot be ignored. We all know that fan behaviour can sometimes be difficult, and that needs to be addressed. However, the answers are not simple, as we found out with previous legislation. As I said, I will not dwell on that for too long, but we cannot simply ignore those concerns. However, we know that those fans are always a very small minority.

The statistics for those who play the game are just as impressive. It is estimated that an impressive 800,000 people play some form of football in Scotland. That includes those involved in regular five-a-sides, such as me, as you know, Deputy Presiding Officer; in walking football, as run by Albion Rovers in the community, which I recently had the pleasure of visiting; and in powerchair football, among many other forms.

On the grass-roots game, the SFA has highlighted that, in 2019, there were more than 147,000 players, the majority of whom were young people and children at the grass-roots level.

Ben Macpherson

Does Fulton MacGregor agree that we must all be focused and determined to ensure that we continue to have a substantial amount of facilities in communities for people to take up and discover the game? Given that local authorities need to give that focus, will he, like me, urge local authorities, including the City of Edinburgh Council, to ensure that there is adequate provision of football pitches? Unfortunately, we have seen a decline in the number of available football pitches in my constituency.

I can give Fulton MacGregor the time back.

Fulton MacGregor

I totally agree with that point, and I will come back to it later. I thank my friend and colleague Ben Macpherson for raising it.

Local parks and community hubs across the country are full every night of the week with young people playing the game and learning life skills. I have a bit of experience of that as a football parent. My eldest child plays for Dunbeth FC, which is a well-established football team in Coatbridge—indeed, for anybody who is interested, I will be going straight to his training after decision time. Dunbeth is only one of many teams in my constituency, of course. I pay tribute to all the coaches and volunteers who work selflessly at those teams to ensure such good experiences for young people.

It is also great to notice the huge rise in the girls’ game at the grass-roots level. That mirrors what is happening in the professional game. I know that all local clubs are doing work in that area, but I highlight the work of Burnbank FC and Bedlay Community Football Club for the groundbreaking work that they are doing in that area.

As demonstrated through the recent UEFA grow report, football is very much a force for good in helping to deliver the Scottish Government’s health and wellbeing priorities for individuals and communities. It is also worth an estimated whopping £1.35 billion to the Scottish economy.

As I highlighted at the outset, I am the convener of the cross-party group on the future of football in Scotland. The SFA is our secretariat, and I thank Paul McNeill of the SFA for all his support to the group over the years. I hope that he is watching because—I did not say this on the night—I thank him for his work on the reception that I hosted at the Parliament in May to celebrate 150 years of the SFA. It was an excellent evening celebrating the value of football and its power to change lives.

We have discussed a number of things at the cross-party group that I would recommend to the Government and local authorities. The first, which Ben Macpherson preceded me in raising, is to do with access to facilities. In my local area, teams often struggle to get pitches even within the town. A new school hub with pitches opened up in Carnbroe in Coatbridge a couple weeks ago and was booked out even before a ball was kicked, with many local clubs left disappointed with their allocation. To be fair, North Lanarkshire Council is carrying out a review of football pitches across the authority area, but we in the cross-party group believe that some work needs to be done at national level to ensure equity of access. That must also include appropriate facilities to help promote the growth of the women’s and accessible games.

Secondly, we think that more can be done to make the game more affordable, particularly in deprived areas. I welcome the First Minister’s recent announcements in that regard. If football is made free for young children, or at least for those who cannot afford it, that will be an investment in the long term, not an expense.

The third ask would be for more support for community clubs to grow their facilities and increase their community engagement. On that point, I welcome the minister’s response to my recent letter in accepting an invitation to visit Albion Rovers in the coming months to hear more about their plans in that area and the challenges that they face.

The men’s national team might not have won on Tuesday night in the 150 year heritage match, but we are on course for Germany, which is very good. Even more important is the pivotal role that football plays in our society. That has been well demonstrated in the debate, and I think that it will continue to be. We have the power, in this chamber and across the country, to harness it even further to improve our wellbeing, community cohesiveness and prosperity as a nation.


Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

Just last week, the Parliament heard the former First Minister say that Parliament needs to be less polarised. It became so last week—briefly, it seems—thanks to an unusual source in the Senior Traffic Commissioner for Great Britain. I am glad that the commissioner heard the united roar of anger from members of all parties and scrapped the ill-thought-out proposals. It is clear to me, from sitting on the Finance and Public Administration Committee, that there are too many commissioners in the Scottish Parliament, but it seems that the UK Parliament might have a similar problem. As a football fan, I am getting fed up with being branded a criminal just because a small minority of fans cannot behave. The proposals that were put on the table were completely over the top, unworkable and unwanted.

To be fair, it is not just the actions of the senior traffic commissioner that have looked to treat football fans unfairly. As has been said, this Parliament has often passed laws that have branded fans as criminals and has not targeted the minority who cannot behave. For example, we have different laws on alcohol in stadiums for rugby and football fans—there is a discrimination there.

One fan who could not behave the other night was our First Minister, who smirked when “God Save the King” was booed—an absolute disgrace for someone in his position. He should be leading, not laughing.

It is interesting to note that the First Minister and his wife had just spent the weekend at Balmoral with the King.

That is quite ironic. He was meeting the King one minute and smirking the next.

That is my rant over.

Maree Todd

Is it the case, then, that the entire Conservative front bench agrees with Stephen Kerr that perhaps another national anthem ought to be chosen, to avoid controversy, and will they be writing to the FA in England to apprise it of their stance?

I cannot speak for everyone else on the Conservative benches, but it is certainly my view, which I share with Stephen Kerr, that they should have their own anthem.

Does the member, as someone whose mother is English, agree that the great country of England should have a national anthem that talks about more than one person?

Douglas Lumsden

That would be something for the English FA to decide. The point that I was making is that, in his position, the First Minister should not have been laughing at what was happening the other night.

I will move on, Presiding Officer, because that is my rant over. I promise to be more positive from now on. The issue demonstrates how important football is to our society and how emotive it can be.

Football has always been part of my life. It provides stories and memories. I remember, as an 11-year-old, queuing up all night to get a ticket to see Aberdeen beat Bayern Munich 3-2. I remember my first Scotland game—not such a happy memory—at Hampden in 1989, when we were narrowly beaten by England, as well as the long bus journey home. Closer to home, when my son and daughter came along, I helped out with their school teams, and, when they got older, I travelled the country to watch their games. I can remember those events from years ago, yet I cannot remember what I had for my dinner last night.

We had an event in Parliament this week to celebrate volunteers in Scottish sport, which was hosted by my colleague Liz Smith. I want to give a big shout out to all those volunteers who help to run sports clubs, including football clubs, right across Scotland. Without those volunteers, grass-roots football would not exist. As a councillor on Aberdeen City Council, I was also able to see at first hand the impact that football trusts make in our communities. I will talk about two of those trusts.

Since being set up in 2014, the Aberdeen Football Club Community Trust has shown the important role that football plays in our local communities. Over the years, the trust has partnered with 17 primary schools and seven academies across the north-east. The trust’s work has increased pupils’ attendance and has improved time keeping, attainment and behaviour. Amazingly, a total of 119 pupils achieved Scottish Qualifications Authority qualifications through the trust’s interventions. The trust’s youth ambassador programme gives young people the opportunity to gain real-world experience, skills and qualifications through volunteering opportunities and work experience. However, the work of the trust goes beyond just education. Its 12-week MINDSET programme, which breaks down the stigma around mental ill health, has been delivered to every secondary 1 pupil in three secondary schools and Aberdeen city academies.

The work of the trust is not limited to young people. The football memories programmes and the regular health walks offer a safe space to people who are suffering with dementia and their families, while improving participants’ mental and physical wellbeing and tackling loneliness, which Stephen Kerr has mentioned. Because of the programmes that the trust offers and the positive impact that it has on the local community, it is not surprising that the trust has been awarded both the UEFA best professional football club in the community award and the Queen’s award in 2019.

As a councillor, I often thought about how the AFC community trust could reach out to people that the local authority could not reach. That ties back to how clubs are woven through the fabric of our communities. In Aberdeen, we are lucky that great work is being done by the Denis Law Legacy Trust, which was instrumental in setting up Cruyff courts in Aberdeen. Those free-to-play courts have a huge impact in some areas of Aberdeen. They were approved in partnership with the then Conservative-led administration, which I was proud to lead. The Denis Law Legacy Trust also works in partnership with local police in tackling anti-social behaviour, providing its streetsport programme five nights a week, improving health and wellbeing and reaching out to youngsters right across the city.

It is not just Conservatives in local government who are helping grass-roots football. Let us not forget the recent announcement by the UK Government that it will invest £20 million in grass-roots multisports facilities in Scotland. That is a huge boost that has been warmly welcomed by the SFA, which will see a significant portion of that cash. The organisation said that it will help to reinforce the power of football locally and, in doing so, develop our national game.

Of course, football brings huge economic benefits. Travel operators and hospitality venues benefit hugely on the back of match days, and town centres benefit hugely by having our stadiums close by. I really hope that Aberdeen Football Club and the local council can work together to ensure that the UK’s first net zero stadium is built in the city.

The Scottish Football Association’s 150-year anniversary really is something to celebrate. The SFA can rightly be proud of its contribution to world football. If England claims to be the mother of football, Scotland must claim to be the father of football, which should make us all proud.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

As a football fan, I was keen to speak in the debate. I am a Greenock Morton fan and I follow the national team. It is fair to say that, over the years, supporting both has not always been easy. However, football fans live for the days when we get a chance to witness something special.

I was in France for the Scotland v Norway game at the world cup in 1998, and those memories will stay with me for the rest of my life. I had the honour of piping our national anthem at Hampden in 2019, when Scotland played Cyprus in a qualifying match. I have had the pleasure of piping at Cappielow and around Finland when Morton took part in a pre-season tour in 1996. As colleagues in the chamber will know, I did a pipeathon in 2017 around all the senior football clubs in Scotland to raise money for charity.

In recent years, I have taken both of my daughters to watch Scotland and Morton. We have also attended a Scotland women’s match at Hampden, and I will touch on the growth of the women’s game in a moment. For anyone who is not aware, I point out that not only did the first men’s international match take place in Scotland, but the first women’s international match in Great Britain took place at Ravenscraig stadium in Greenock on 18 November 1972. It was a Scotland v England match. A match was held at that stadium last year to mark that game’s 50th anniversary, and there is no lie in saying that Scotland is a home of international football.

Football has the ability—possibly like no other sport—to impact a town’s or a nation’s mood. We can think of the collective anticipation that we all felt on Tuesday in the build-up to the Scotland v England match. Sadly, the result was not what I would have wanted—I see Mr Simpson smirking over there.

I should not need to point out to Stuart McMillan that I am a Scotland fan. I think that he knows that I was born in Aberdeen, so I was rooting for Scotland.

Stuart McMillan

As an England-born Scot, my loyalties were only on one side on Tuesday night.

The men’s national team is on the cusp of reaching its second Euros in a row. There is so much optimism and excitement around the team, and long may that continue.

There is no doubting the role that football plays in our societies and communities. No playground would be the same without a ball being kicked, and it would not be a family party without someone talking about the most recent football results.

Football is ingrained in Scotland; it is hard to ignore our national game. Even those who are not regular football spectators got involved during the Euros in 2021. Children the length and breadth of the country felt the excitement that only those who are old enough to remember the halcyon days of Craig Brown and Andy Roxburgh taking us to international tournaments had felt.

Stuart McMillan mentioned Craig Brown. Will he join me in remembering what a great man Craig Brown was? We lost him recently. He was a great manager for Scotland and Aberdeen.

Stuart McMillan

I absolutely agree with the comments that have been made. Craig Brown was an outstanding manager and servant to football in Scotland. He managed elsewhere, too. He is a great loss.

My local club, Greenock Morton, will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, and I look forward to colleagues signing my motion on that when I lodge it in due course. No one can enter or leave Inverclyde without driving past Cappielow, which is one of Scotland’s most traditional grounds and has one of the smallest pitches. The place has so much character.

Many parent and child bonds have been developed while standing in the cowshed at the stadium and cheering on Morton legends such as Allan McGraw, Andy Ritchie and Alan Mahood, to name just three. Football has the ability to unify us in the most special way. When Allan McGraw—Mr Morton—passed away earlier this year, there was an outpouring of emotion for him. He was inducted into the club’s hall of fame in 2017, after spells as a player at, and a manager of, the club.

In 2019, a group of Morton fans began Morton Club Together with the aim of contributing to the first team’s playing budget. That goal developed into pursuing community ownership and, since June 2021, Greenock Morton Football Club has been owned by its fans.

Morton Club Together is an entirely volunteer-led organisation, with many dedicated people giving up time, effort and money to help make community ownership a success. Where else would we see people giving up so much time, effort and money to something that can sometimes put them in the worst of moods? Football clubs have that enduring hold over their fans.

Morton also has a community development trust. I had a members’ business debate about the Greenock Morton Community Trust a number of years ago. Morton in the Community, as it is now called, is an example of what can be done with the right attitude and desire to make things better for people living in a community. Now led by Brian McLaughlin, the organisation has been operational since March 2013. It helps to create a healthier and safer region by working closely with key partners in the public and private sectors to create inclusive programmes that engage people of all ages and abilities. Those range from physical literacy classes in nursery schools to non-elite coaching sessions with two to 16-year-olds, employability training for people of all ages, the promotion of healthy lifestyles and physical and mental wellbeing sessions. More than 5,000 people are engaged in those programmes on an annual basis. Football can have such an effect on our communities in Inverclyde.

Turning to the women’s game, I genuinely think that this is a really exciting time for young women and girls in football. At no other time in history has there been so much support for the women’s game. I am in no way saying that things are equal—they are not, and we still have a long way to go—but, for the first time, young girls are having it normalised to see elite women’s football on television at prime time. Many people now watch women’s football. For the first time, Scotland qualified for the world cup, in 2019. Scottish teams compete at a high level in European competitions, and domestic games now appear regularly on television. I hope that the present feel-good factor around the women’s game continues to grow.

When I was growing up, Scotland men’s games were free to watch on TV. Before I was elected to the Parliament, I lodged a petition to the Public Petitions Committee, in around 2003 or 2004, calling for the men’s game once again to be shown on free-to-air TV. During this cost of living crisis, we should not be asking football fans to pay even more money to watch our national team play. The UK Government needs to hear those calls loud and clear and must ensure that every young person in Scotland is able to watch our national teams on free-to-air channels at what is such an exciting point in our footballing history.


Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I begin by giving my sincere apologies for having missed the first two minutes of the minister’s speech. There is nothing worse than arriving late at the football to find you have missed the only goal of the game—I am sure that I missed a highlight in that regard.

I am always glad of the opportunity to discuss Scotland’s national game, day or night. I am also glad of the outbreak of consensus around supporters buses. The ludicrous and unwarranted proposals from the traffic commissioner for Scotland resulted in a lot of traffic in my inbox from fans across Dundee and the north-east. Those buses are part of the lives of thousands of Scots every fortnight, and they are their own wee communities, which cross generations and classes. Judging from the proposals, we might have thought that they were touring groups of hell’s angels, bringing terror to our streets, but we would be far more likely to find people doing quizzes about Scottish cup wins in the 1970s or their daily crossword, before tucking into the ham piece that they made at home.

What we have seen in that policy is not unusual, however. Football fans in Scotland seem to be set apart from the general population and, over the past decade, they have become more and more used to being on the front line of blame by the Scottish National Party Government for various versions of Scotland’s ills. As Mr Bibby set out, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 was certainly the most obvious egregious illustration of that, and it was completely incompetent. It flowed from the tendency of the Government to set football fans apart, not just in policy but as a class in law, suggesting that football fans are somehow different from all other sports enthusiasts and can be targeted as such for easy headlines. There is, of course, a historical class prejudice that runs through that. The licensing laws for football and rugby being different is the obvious illustration of that.

The manner in which football fans were treated during Covid restrictions is a broader example. When restrictions were lifted, no food could be sold at football grounds, while other sports had the beer taps flowing. The infamous cancellation of an Aberdeen v Celtic match, making an example of thousands because one young player made a very bad mistake with his own isolation, is yet another example.

At a time when the general observation of Covid rules, and the willing co-operation of the public with those rules, was vital, football fans felt as if they were the recipients of a different approach from a Government that thought that only some kind of punishment could teach them a lesson. The absence of the game from their lives during Covid was intolerable for many people and the huge rebound in match attendances to well above pre-Covid levels shows how much we wanted to be together and how much we missed that community and that part of our lives.

Football is integral to the rhythm of Scottish life. We sit with our parents, children, friends and with those who would be far-flung strangers from different walks of life but for our shared obsession with its highs and lows. We stand on the touchlines in horrific rain watching our daughters, sons and grandchildren. There are volunteer coaches, committee members, treasurers, bus conveners, league administrators, programme writers, bloggers, historians, journalists, fans and players of fives, sevens and 11s who walk, wheel, sprint and fall.

Stephen Kerr

Since my party leader is not here, I feel obliged to point out that Michael Marra did not mention match officials and I think I should put the record straight on that score so that I can take the lead another debate at some point.

Michael Marra

I do recall Mr Kerr’s party leader running the line at Tannadice just last season, when Dundee United conceded a dubious penalty to Hearts. The gentleman in question had flagged and my son started screaming, “That’s that man that you work with!” [Laughter.] I had to quickly explain that we worked in the same building, rather than being very much closer than that. Our referees, linesmen and officials certainly play a huge part in our game.

I think of Johnny’s stressed days and sleepless nights over his search for a goalkeeper for the Riverside under-10s. Football takes so many hours and so much passion, not all of it rational.

Our game is not without its flaws. We saw 21 men playing one game at Hampden the other night while Jude Bellingham played an entirely different sport. That may have been the reality check that our game needs, but a further and urgent reality check is required when we consider the damage done to players by repeated head impacts, as my colleague Richard Leonard already mentioned. Those impacts have left so many players suffering from degenerative brain disease incurred in the line of their work. Those are industrial industries, so the Scottish Government must recognise them as such and must ensure that families are afforded support, based on overwhelming medical evidence. I am delighted that our injury time campaign on that most serious of issues is being discussed at Westminster this very afternoon in a debate brought forward by Ian Blackford MP and supported by Chris Stephens MP, both of the SNP, which is a good sign of cross-party support for that very present and coming issue.

We know that our national game must carefully and honestly confront some grave legacies: sectarianism, homophobia, misogyny and racism—a microcosm of our society, indeed, but all exist in the context of the love of the game, and that should give us some hope.

We watch football in this country more than anywhere else in Europe and we play as much as anywhere in the world. I believe that we are at a moment when football is more hospitable and inclusive than at any time in the 150 years since the wise old men of Mount Florida invented the modern game.

There is huge potential for football to help transform our health and how we see each other and it can be a truly common ground between us all. The community trusts of our senior clubs feed bairns, put boots on their feet and give what is, for some of them, a rare chance for joy. Football fans in training combat obesity. Street Soccer’s change centre in Lochee in Dundee works with people with addiction. The idea of fans supporting food banks, which started in Merseyside, was copied in Dundee and is now spreading across Scotland.

We also see the inexorable and joyous rise of the women’s game, with Rachel Corsie in court this week leading a captain’s fight for equal treatment for her players. Zander Murray, a gay man, is changing attitudes with his honesty and his play and is a new icon to stand alongside Andrew Watson, who, 140 years ago, was the first black captain of our national team.

Those are the stories of a national game in which we are all players.


Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

I welcome this debate and start on a positive note by celebrating the fact that football contributes significantly to the cultural, social, economic and sporting fabric of Scotland, including through the work of the Scottish FA, which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2023

Right across the country and in every single one of our communities, football contributes to healthy lives, socialisation and even to careers and lifelong interests for so many of our young people. Every year, millions of Scots attend games and pour money into the economy while enjoying football. It is not only clubs that benefit; it is the hospitality sector, food and drink producers, and indeed transport companies.

Transport providers brings me nicely to my next point. Like many football fans the length and breadth of Scotland, I was outraged when the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain published proposals last week to change the guidelines around supporters’ buses in Scotland. If introduced, the changes would have had an impact on every fan travelling by bus to a game in a country. A joint statement from the Scottish FA, Scottish Professional Football League, and Scottish Women’s Premier League said that the proposals were “unnecessary and heavy handed.” They came without any consultation with the Scottish Government and, it would appear, no consultation with Scottish football clubs, and they seemed completely unworkable.

Reaction from Scottish football fans was overwhelmingly negative. The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport, Maree Todd, wrote to the commissioner to better understand where the ludicrous proposals came from. As a result, the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain ceased the consultation exercise. I add my thanks to the minister for that. The scrapping of those ridiculous proposals was a victory for every Scottish football fan who stood up and made their voice heard loud and clear. The whole episode reeked of complete snobbery, and the very fact that the UK traffic commissioner tried to do it speaks volumes about the contempt in which they hold our national game.

Scottish football is something to be celebrated and our fans should be heralded. Perhaps it is time for consideration about how football fans are treated more broadly. Let us ensure that such an attack on our national game never happens again, and let us treat supporters fairly, as we do everyone else. I ask the minister to continue to act in that vein.

Douglas Lumsden

I thank the member for taking an intervention and I also think that we should treat everyone fairly. Does the member think that the licensing laws that discriminate between football and rugby, for example, should be looked at again?

Collette Stevenson

I totally agree with the member that we should look at that again.

As an advocate for equality, with a particular interest in women’s participation in sport, I want to touch on women’s football and celebrate its success in Scotland. I welcome that the Scottish Government is a committed and long-standing supporter of women’s and girls’ football. Great progress has been made in recent years and the Scottish Government is working with the Scottish FA and Scottish Women’s Football to build on those strong foundations.

The Scottish women’s national team now plays at Hampden and has delivered record crowds for women’s qualifiers in Scotland. Elite women’s football became the responsibility of the Scottish Professional Football League from season 2022-23. The Scottish FA published its bespoke women’s football strategy, “Accelerate Our Game” in 2021. The strategy is helping to harness that power to ensure that women’s and girls’ football in Scotland goes from strength to strength.

The Scottish Government wants to increase the participation of women and girls in sport, so the success of the women’s team will inspire more women and girls to get involved, from grass-roots activity to elite level. That includes the East Kilbride Thistle Girls Football Club in my constituency. The team has gone from strength to strength in recent times and it is a great example of an inspirational Scottish women’s football team. I extend an invitation to the minister to visit the team when her diary allows.

Across Scotland, policymakers, businesses, institutions and individuals are embracing new ways of thinking to prioritise our collective wellbeing and help to build flourishing communities.

The Scottish FA commissioned a Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland report to inform policy makers about the value of football and to potentially contribute to policies aimed at building a wellbeing economy.

Football has long been at the heart of Scotland’s communities and has a unique reach. It is played and watched by children, young people and adults across Scotland, in the streets, in parks, in halls, on pitches and in stadiums. It is a sport that everyone should be able to get involved in when provision is tailored—teams can comprise players of different ages, genders, physical abilities and levels of performance. It should and must continue to be celebrated.

I again celebrate football’s contribution to Scotland. I welcome the scrapping of the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain’s ridiculous guidance, and I ask that we all work to celebrate the contribution that football—women’s football, in particular—makes to Scotland.


Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

To get straight to the point, before they were taken off the table, the proposed restrictions on travelling football fans were unwarranted, unworkable and entirely out of touch, and they were rejected by the SFA, the SPFL, the SWPL, clubs and fan organisations. They served little purpose other than to demonise law-abiding citizens. Our football fans should be celebrated.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

Gillian Mackay referred to policies that are unenforceable and unworkable. What does she think about the ban on alcohol on Scottish National Party-run ScotRail, which started off as a ban on match days but has been permanently extended to a 24-hour ban? As well as banning the consumption of alcohol on trains at any time of day, it extends to the carrying of alcohol in an unopened bottle, unless it is in a bag that is not see-through. Is that not also unenforceable and unworkable? Should the SNP Government not reconsider the ban on alcohol on our trains?

Gillian Mackay

I am sure that Craig Hoy is aware that I am not the Minister for Transport. I suggest that he puts his proposals to her and finds out what she has to say.

As we have heard, a higher proportion of people attend football matches in Scotland than do anywhere else in Europe. Our fans enjoy a wonderful reputation internationally for the support that they provide and the atmosphere that they create. On the rare occasions on which incidents occur, the police and other bodies already have the powers that they need to deal with them. Frankly, it is irresponsible to make sweeping generalisations about football fans and their behaviour.

This afternoon, members have shown the value and benefit of football to our communities, and I want to shine a light on the fantastic work that is carried out by some of the many football clubs, and their supporters, in my Central Scotland region.

The difference that Motherwell FC, as a fan-owned club, makes to its local community should not be underestimated. In December last year, the club teamed up with Samaritans, Breathing Space, Childline and the local charity Chris’s House to launch a charitable kit that encouraged fans who were struggling to speak up, speak out and be heard. All profits that were made by the club on the kits were split equally between the four charities, which provide a vital first point of contact for people who need to talk or are feeling suicidal.

In 2021, which was a year that was disrupted by lockdowns and restrictions on numbers and travel, a social return on investment report found that Motherwell Football Club Community Trust brought benefits of £13.64 million to the local community. As the official charity of Motherwell Football Club, the trust uses the brand name of the club and the power of football to bring about positive change in the local community through programmes that bring health and wellbeing benefits, tackle isolation and increase participation in sport.

In recent months, supporters of Motherwell have raised thousands of pounds for mental health charities. At Christmas, they organised a toy drive, and they regularly participate in food bank collections, an activity that is replicated by the fans of other clubs who support food bank groups across Scotland.

Similarly, Falkirk Football Club’s community foundation is a community leader and provider of sport, health, education and employability activities to children, young people and adults. The community’s wellbeing is integral to its work, and tackling deep-rooted issues is of the utmost importance to it. One initiative that stands out is its hugely successful partnership with Falkirk & Clackmannanshire Carers Centre. The partnership has resulted in more than 600 season tickets being gifted to carers and cared-for people in the current football season. Its work is invaluable and, last year, it had 3,603 unique participants through the door, making up more than 250,000 hours and providing 1,312 SQA qualifications, allowing local people to develop skills and opportunities to secure future employment.

Football is very much a force for good, and fan ownership clearly has its benefits for those clubs. We need to understand what barriers there are for other clubs joining them and how we can facilitate that. Fan groups such as the Hampden Collection and the Scottish Football Supporters Association do phenomenal work to preserve our footballing heritage and encourage fan engagement. We need far more of that at national level.

The ludicrous proposal that we are discussing, which, thankfully, has been withdrawn, was an infringement of the civil liberties of football fans. The demonisation of football fans is clear from the outset of the proposal. Although the title of the paper references sporting events, the word “football” is used 35 times in the document, yet no other sport is mentioned.

Although I welcome the cross-party concern, it is important to highlight the fact that the harsh treatment of football fans is not a new concept, and we all have a responsibility to stand up to and challenge it wherever we see it. The proposals were unmanageable. It was suggested that supporters could buy alcohol in a pub only with a substantial meal. That sounds like something that we would hear in a sitcom instead of reading it in an official document published on a Government website. The knock-on effect for small businesses could have been significant, with pubs and restaurants near football stadiums relying heavily on passing trade on match days. In a cost of living crisis, we should be creating opportunities for traders and not putting them under further pressure.

The strength of feeling is emphasised when we see Rangers fans in agreement with Celtic fans, political parties in agreement across the chamber and the SFA in agreement with supporters groups.

However, we must remain vigilant. The proposal has been removed for now, but there is nothing to prevent something similar coming back. If it does, together, we must condemn any more such attacks on our football fans. I pay tribute to the fans who highlighted the proposal on social media in the first place.

We must support fan groups, build on and empower their work, increase fan ownership of clubs and get more Scotland games on free-to-view TV—I fully support Stuart McMillan’s calls for that. We need to do more to promote women’s football, as Collette Stevenson said, and provide parity for women players.

Fans are a phenomenal resource and support to their clubs, and everything that we can do to support them benefits football across the country.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I declare a couple of interests. First, I have two grandkids who play for the youth team of a premiership club in Scotland. One of them has just come back from Dortmund, having played in a tournament with Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Everton, which is quite an experience for an 11-year-old.

Secondly, I must declare that I have played football at senior level. [Interruption.] Yes, it was a long time ago. I will put it in context, Presiding Officer. I was coaching Ayr United and, during a pre-season tournament, we ran out of players, so I had to put on my shinnies and go on. In the post-match media, the manager, Gordon Dalziel, described my participation as running about a lot and drinking a lot of water. Those members who have seen me play football will know that the description was probably true.

I am delighted to rise again to speak about sport and to have the opportunity to highlight the positive contribution that sport provides in our communities and, more widely, for our country’s wellbeing. The motion points to the role that football clubs play in their wider communities, which is a crucial point. Many supporters have been encouraged to participate in exercise and weight loss programmes organised by clubs. I am sure that quite a few members have visited football clubs where men’s mental health groups are held; many of their participants would not access similar help from statutory services. I note the work of Kilmarnock, Ayr United and St Mirren football clubs—I have to mention those three because I have coached at them. Hearts and Hibs, to name but a couple, have fantastic programmes, too.

Football clubs provide an environment in which supporters feel comfortable and can walk the same paths as the heroes and heroines they watch week in, week out. Football clubs are central to many community activities and, way beyond just watching the club, it is important that we support those efforts as much as we can and do not just assume that the football clubs will foot the bill. That kind of interaction is positive for the football clubs, too, because those bonds with their respective communities deliver for the long-term future of the clubs as well as for the wellbeing of supporters. We need to consider how we can build on those relationships for the health and future of those communities.

You will not be surprised, Presiding Officer, to hear me advocate for the role of sport in our society. I have often said that I do not think that we give the value to sport and physical activity that they deserve. Physical activity is a cornerstone of good health, and we need to consider how to encourage physical activity more, given Scotland’s poor health record.

Douglas Lumsden

I think that it was Ben Macpherson who made a point about the lack of facilities. When I was trying to run football teams, it was not just the lack of facilities but their cost that was putting football out of reach for so many children.

The biggest inequality that we have in this country is the inequality of opportunity. I reiterate that sport is increasingly becoming the bastion of the middle classes.

Maree Todd

The member and I have exchanged views on that point during other debates. I am sure that the member would welcome the fact that, despite all the challenges, football is the one sport that has equal participation right across the socioeconomic divide, which is, indeed, to be celebrated.

Brian Whittle

I speak from personal experience: of my three eldest grandchildren, the eldest plays rugby and the next two play football. The two who play football happen to go to one senior club now, but they used to go to two different ones, which meant that three kids had to be transported to three different venues at the weekend and sometimes had to call Paps—that is, me—to come and help.

The problem that we have is that sport is becoming the bastion of the middle classes. Scottish school sport is increasingly dominated by private education. Minister, you have challenged me on that point previously and said that that has never been the case, but I have to say that you are simply wrong.

Always speak through the chair, please.

Brian Whittle

Sorry, Presiding Officer; apologies to the minister.

When I was at school, there were 36 rugby-playing schools in Ayrshire; the last time that I checked, there were six. Looking at the various Scottish schools championships across many sports over the years, you will see that correlation. School sport has declined, along with access to sport, at the same time as the number of fast-food outlets has exploded. That has led to the cost of obesity to the Scottish economy standing at a staggering £5 billion; to the mental health bill standing at £4.5 billion; and to diabetes treatment accounting for 10 per cent of the national health service spend.

You know that I am a simple man who looks for simple solutions, Presiding Officer. The way in which children participate in sport now is increasingly about going home from school and then needing to go somewhere else. The school estate and environment are very much part of the solution. When I was at school, I never went home at 4 o’clock—there was always something else to do. We have to look at the issues that we are considering here—

Will the member give way on that point?

Have I got time, Presiding Officer?

I regret to say that you do not, because we are using up all the spare time that we have. Could you please draw to a conclusion?

Brian Whittle

Sorry to my colleague.

I want to look at the issues that we are trying to consider in the education environment: attainment, poor mental health, physical health, behaviour and hunger. An investment in pre-school activity along with a breakfast can help to address those issues as well as dealing with stigma.

I will cut my speech and just sum up, Presiding Officer.

Sport helps with physical health; not only that, but the interactions, the camaraderie, the confidence, the resilience and the aspiration spill into all aspects of life. It is time that we recognise that sport is a force for good through both participation and volunteering and that we are brave enough to change the goalposts when it comes to access to sport; it is time that the Scottish Government recognised that football clubs and sports clubs are at the centre of so many communities, and that it properly invested in sport.


Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I congratulate the Scottish Football Association on its 150th anniversary. Of course, the history of Scotland’s beautiful game dates back much further, possibly to the middle ages. In its modern guise, football enjoyed rapid growth after the formation of Scotland’s earliest clubs in the 1860s, and the SFA was established to organise how our game should be played and structured. In the generations since then, our clubs and national teams have experienced many highs and lows, bringing joy and more than the occasional tear to millions.

Earlier, Stephen Kerr talked about Forfar’s epic journey to the league cup semi-final, which I also recall. I recall that Rangers were not doing particularly well at the time, and there was a certain allegation about hot balls and cold balls when they did the draw so that, with Hearts, Forfar, Rangers and Celtic being in the last four, Rangers and Celtic miraculously avoided each other. In fact, that continued until St Mirren’s magnificent win with the Scottish cup final victory in 1987, when they actually sold out the cup final at Hampden. The authorities possibly thought, “You know, we don’t need to do the hot ball, cold ball thing because we’ll sell out the final every year anyway.” Since then, a plethora of different teams have competed in the final and indeed won it.

I assume that the member is using parliamentary privilege to make such a scurrilous accusation against the football authorities.

Kenneth Gibson

That is why the word “alleged” is always important on such occasions.

In the 1970s, Scotland had some of the world’s most formidable players, who played for European trophy-winning sides such as Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Aberdeen. Sadly, a lack of self-belief and, at times, good luck on the pitch meant that Scotland fans were denied some of the great success that clubs achieved on the international stage. Celtic won the 1967 European cup with a team entirely from the west of Scotland that included my Saltcoats constituent Bobby Lennox, who is still going strong at 80. Rangers won the cup winners cup in 1972, Aberdeen won two European trophies in 1983, and a classy Dundee United team beat Barcelona twice, home and away—also a magnificent achievement.

The professional game has seen radical change since then and such results would be difficult in this day and age, where money talks louder than ever before. The English Premier League is awash with TV money, and across Europe many football clubs are in the hands of capricious billionaires at best and oil-rich Governments with questionable human rights records at worst. That makes it increasingly difficult for our club sides to compete on the international stage. It is not surprising that some fans feel increasingly alienated from the modern game, which often prices out the most ardent.

What gives us hope is that, in Scotland, despite our club sides no longer being as competitive as they were, the passion and enthusiasm of supporters shows no sign of abating. In fact, the Scottish Professional Football League continues to top the table of match attendance per capita across the world, with 21.3 attendees per 1,000 people at matches across our top four divisions and average weekly support of 117,700 fans. That is 65 per cent more than the second-placed Netherlands. In addition, despite Tuesday night’s tactical setback, the national team is doing better than it has done for years. We may have had to field players from Bournemouth, Norwich, Southampton and Watford against those of Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, but the team has fire in its belly.

Do we have too small a population? In the less than 30 years since it secured independence, Croatia, with only 3.9 million people, has appeared in two world cup semi-finals and a European nations final, and in the 2018 world cup final against France it was clearly robbed. Uruguay, with 3.5 million souls, has twice won the world cup and it has been South American champion 15 times—six times more than Brazil. Who can forget tiny Iceland, with fewer people than Ayrshire, defeating England 2-1 in Euro 2016 despite going one down in seven minutes to a dodgy Wayne Rooney penalty? If those countries can do well, so can Scotland.

Football has always been about more than pitch action. Its importance is difficult to overstate. It has given many people a social network, a feeling of belonging or a sense of identity. Supporters also make a vital contribution to their communities and Scotland as a nation through the many charitable and community initiatives, and money is injected into local economies by fans travelling to attend games.

That is not to say that Scottish football does not still have a problem with sectarianism. It does. Nevertheless, compared with fans of other sports, today’s football fans face more restrictions in following their teams on match days. I am therefore glad that the Scottish Government’s motion refers to the ludicrous and widely criticised proposals from the traffic commissioners to unfairly target football supporters who are following their teams. The commissioners’ U-turn is a clear win for Scottish football fans, supported by the SFA and the First Minister, who made their frustration at the proposals known loud and clear. I hope that the outcry will give way to more consideration as to how football fans are treated more broadly and will involve the representation of clubs and fans more directly.

A prime example of that is the 2021-22 programme for government commitment to provide financial support over this parliamentary session to allow more communities to purchase a share in their local sports club or facilities, by creating a fan bank. I am delighted that, earlier this year, the Falkirk Supporters Society, as the first beneficiary of the programme, was awarded a £350,000 interest-free loan, which allowed it to buy collective shares in the club.

In the long run, it would be desirable to look at the German model, whereby a minimum of 50 per cent plus one share of the club must be owned by club members, as a glowing example of how clubs should be governed. The results speak for themselves in the league’s strength and financial stability, as well as in its passionate fans, who often pay as little as £10 for a standing ticket at one of the country’s top Bundesliga clubs.

In 2016, Motherwell Football Club became the first top-flight club in Scotland to be fan owned. That has undeniably led to financial consolidation and stabilisation on and off the pitch, with the team reaching cup finals and the club becoming ever more deeply rooted in the local community.

Although I have focused mainly on professional football and the men’s game, we must not forget that the football that we celebrate is played all over Scotland by men, women, boys and girls, from large stadia to the pitches of junior and amateur clubs and in local parks and schools. Scottish fans do not need to see global stars pull on their team’s kit in order to be passionate about their club or country. They need to be treated with respect and to have their voices heard when it comes to how their clubs are run, so that the interests of clubs—not those of shareholders—are always put first.

We move to the winding-up speeches.


Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Although it may not be so when I and, as we have heard, Neil Bibby and Brian Whittle play it, football really is the beautiful game. I have enjoyed listening to members talking of their love of the game, sharing the highs and lows of their teams—from Stephen Kerr’s memory of the Loons missing out narrowly to Rangers in the cup in 1978 to Douglas Lumsden’s slightly more successful trip to Pittodrie to see the Dons defeat Bayern Munich on that memorable journey to Gothenburg 40 years ago. It has felt a wee bit like group therapy, at times, as members have shared their highs and lows.

I will add to that. Since I was a boy, I have followed my hame team, Queen of the South, through thick and maybe slightly more thin. I was nine when I went to my first game at Palmerston park—at home to Partick Thistle in February 1980, in the fourth round of the Scottish cup. That match was not a classic; my lasting memory is of Alan Rough’s curly perm.

I saw the Queens in their only Scottish cup final, in 2008. It did not matter that we did not win; thousands of the blue-and-white army still proudly paraded through Dumfries behind the open-top team bus, days after the game. Of course, getting to that cup final meant that the Queens got to play in Europe, against Denmark’s FC Nordsjælland, and the chance to go to Copenhagen with so many fellow Doonhamers.

Bill Shankly was right when he said that football without fans is nothing. However, sometimes, as we have heard in the debate, we would not know that from how fans are often treated. Rightly, several members have commented on the traffic commissioners’ recent and now withdrawn proposals on how fans are taken to football matches, which were ill thought out, unworkable and unenforceable. Neil Bibby was right to say that those plans showed snobbery towards working-class fans, who are often treated as default criminals—just as they were by the likewise dropped laws on offensive behaviour at football.

Often, that disrespect for our fans can spill over into some of the decisions by football authorities. Gillian Mackay and Stuart McMillan were right to highlight the calls for Scotland matches to be shown on terrestrial TV. Of course we need to maximise the income for our game, but the deals that have been signed mean that, if we want to watch Scottish men’s clubs and the national team, we need to subscribe to three separate to-TV providers.

I may stop short of repeating Bill Shankly’s much-misquoted words, which were mentioned by the minister—that the game is more important than life or death—but it matters to fans. It is part of who we are, our history and our heritage. The spending power of our clubs and fans creates thousands of jobs across Scotland. Football is one of our most significant economic and cultural exports, with Scottish footballers playing for huge clubs around the world and Scottish fans following the national team across Europe—including, I am sure, Germany next year. Let us hope that I do not have to change the parliamentary record on that one.

Football is also good for our health and wellbeing. It can be—and is—a force for good. That good goes beyond the big national and international men’s teams. A number of members have rightly highlighted the growth of women’s football, which has inspired girls and boys—from the edge-of-the-seat excitement of Glasgow City snatching the SWPL title in injury time last season, to the journey of the European champions, the Lionesses, to the recent world cup final. We also have the equally inspiring growth of para-football.

Local grass-roots clubs continue to be the heartbeat of our communities, often run by volunteers, who are real local heroes, and our local professional clubs are increasingly going beyond the pitch. Tragically, suicide remains the single biggest killer of men under 45. Last year, my hame team, Queen of the South, launched the changing room, an innovative mental health project delivered in partnership with SAMH and the SPFL Trust that supports men between 30 and 64 to tackle the social isolation caused by Covid and lockdowns through a 12-week programme.

Kevin Stewart

I also pay tribute to all the clubs that now have changing rooms at their heart to tackle suicide and ensure prevention methods. Clubs also have to be applauded for all the other community work that they do. Some of the work that is being done in relation to social isolation and dementia, in Aberdeen and in other places, is fantastic and really brings folk back to life. I wonder whether Mr Smyth agrees.

Colin Smyth

I will come back to the issue of dementia in football when I respond to some of the comments that Michael Marra made, but Kevin Stewart is right that there are many great examples of the memories programme making a difference, including those involving teams such as Queen of the South and Kilmarnock in the south of Scotland. I have visited one of those projects and seen the way that the eyes of those who go along light up when they have the memories of matches that they were at 40 or 50 years ago. That is a fantastic piece of work that many clubs are doing.

Another local team in my region is Annan Athletic, who are the very definition of the community, because they are owned by that local community. More than seven years ago, Annan began working with the co-operative Supporters Direct to explore a new ownership model to put the fans at the heart of the club. That culminated in 100 per cent community ownership through a community benefit society. They are now putting those community values into action, from backing the fitba first project to hosting the armed forces veterans breakfast club. Stuart McMillan shared a similar story of Greenock Morton, and we should encourage and enable more of that community ownership model.

Although football brings community values to life, it also—as we have heard—carries inherent risks. Michael Marra highlighted the growing concern about the long-term impact of head injuries in football, with emerging research showing that former footballers are three and a half times more likely to die of brain injuries, including dementia. I pay tribute to his injury time campaign, on which he has worked with the PFA Scotland and the GMB. The campaign, which was also mentioned by Richard Leonard, is encouraging the Government to recognise the brain injuries of professional footballers as an industrial injury.

One of my football heroes, former Queen of the South centre-back Kevin Hetherington, is involved in that campaign. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at just 58 years of age. I hope that we can use the battles of Kevin and others as a force for good to bring better support and protection for our players, in the same way that the memory of Frank Kopel, struck dumb by dementia at 59, led to the inspiring campaign by his wife Amanda Kopel to extend free personal care to those under the age of 65.

It is clear from the debate that, despite what people sometimes think, we politicians are not different from most. We love the beautiful game and we recognise, in a rare case of consensus, that it really is a real force for good.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

It has been a largely positive debate. It did not quite start off that way, but I invite the minister to make her closing remarks, when she responds, wholly and 100 per cent positive, in order to reflect the nature of the debate that we have had. That is what one would expect, given the subject.

Everyone who has spoken is a fan of football. Some of us will have played football at some point in our lives, to varying standards—not very high, in my case. I suspect that Stephen Kerr has never pulled on a pair of boots.

Not true.

I am not sure that that is a sight that I would wish to see. Stephen Kerr might wish to intervene to disabuse me of that notion.

I confirm for the record that I have, indeed, worn a pair of football boots.

Graham Simpson

He did not say that he played football; he just said that he had “worn ... football boots.” I am not entirely sure that I would like to see Mr Kerr marauding across a football pitch.

I noticed that Mr Kerr did not refer to Falkirk Football Club, which is in our shared region. That was a shame, because ahead of the debate I was recalling a time when I played at the former Brockville Park for a team from The Sun newspaper. I think that it was during that game—we played a few there—that former Partick Thistle manager Gerry Collins rather brutally body checked me off the pitch. I was also successfully man marking one of my football heroes, Danny McGrain, until our manager made the tactical blunder of taking me off, then it all started to go wrong. [Interruption.] Mr Kerr is laughing, but I am telling the truth, Presiding Officer.

I mention that match because football gives people great memories. Whether they play, just watch or do both, it is a game that brings people together. It can be good for their mental and physical health—or maybe not, depending on which team they support.

This was originally meant to have been an entirely different debate, following the commissioners’ deeply flawed consultation on supporters’ buses. That was a mad idea from the start, so I am pleased that it has been dropped. I hope that we will not see it again. I am not aware that there is an issue to solve in respect of fans on buses in Scotland, so let us not create one.

I want to talk about the good that football does in the community. In 2018, Scotland became one of the first countries in Europe to take part in a landmark UEFA study to illustrate the unique benefits of football participation nationwide. The strategic return on investment model was created to provide national associations with a tool to help them to understand the value of football participation at all levels. It provides tangible evidence of how football can improve lives. The SFA actually put a monetary value on participation in football: the 2018 report concluded that the total number of registered players in the game was worth more than £500 million annually to Scotland.

In my region, one of the best-known community clubs is Motherwell FC, which Gillian Mackay mentioned. Motherwell Football Club Community Trust uses the brand name of the club and the power of football to bring positive change to the local community. Ms Mackay has visited it, as have I. In 2021, UEFA’s social return on investment report demonstrated a huge variety of social, economic, educational and health benefits associated with the local community in Motherwell because of the programmes that were available through the trust and the club. Social benefits include improved educational attainment, reduced school absence through targeted social projects, and participation programmes spanning projects for disability football and children and young persons’ football.

Last year, I was delighted to visit Fir Park to see at first hand how much of a positive impact such programmes have on people of all ages and backgrounds. Efforts there to have me pull on my boots again have so far proved fruitless, but you never know—it might happen.

The 2021 UEFA report concluded that, even though it has a staff of just seven, supplemented by more than 60 volunteers, the impact of the Motherwell Football Club Community Trust’s activity was worth £13.6 million across social, economic, health and education measurements, which is very impressive indeed.

Cumbernauld Colts Football Club is an excellent example of how the presence of a community football club can positively impact on the lives of women and girls. It launched a women’s team earlier this year, with the aim of its becoming the biggest club in North Lanarkshire to offer girls football.

I should also mention Hamilton Accies, which has been running a very successful scheme that goes into local schools to teach young people about drug safety. Accies’ ground also has a food bank, a men’s shed and even a beach. Yes—a beach. I urge members to go there. The club has built a beach behind the ground.

I will briefly mention the contributions of other members. There have been various calls for the England football team to have its own national anthem. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me, but no one made any actual suggestions on that. Off the top of my head, I can think of “Land of Hope and Glory” or perhaps “Jerusalem”, but there might be other ideas.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

Graham Simpson

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, which Mr Kerr does regularly.

Neil Bibby talked about snobbery towards football; Douglas Lumsden revealed his own football memories, but then told us that he cannot remember what he had for dinner last night. Stuart McMillan reminisced about his piping tour of football grounds and spoke of his love for Greenock Morton FC. Michael Marra and Richard Leonard mentioned the serious issue of brain disease linked to heading the ball, which we should debate further, and Gillian Mackay mentioned Motherwell and Falkirk and, rightly, said that we need to see more Scotland games on free-to-view telly, as Tuesday’s game was.

Speaking of Tuesday’s game, before it started, I spent some time with British Transport Police at Glasgow Central station, watching how the officers marshall the fans. It was a seamless operation. England fans were in good spirits, and I hope that both teams get to the Euro finals. I am sure that they will, and I am sure that they will do well. I support the motion.


Maree Todd

Football is a subject that many of us clearly feel passionate about, and we have heard many contributions this afternoon that demonstrate the incredible impact of football on people’s lives, and which highlight the amazing work that football clubs and their associated trusts and foundations do in their communities.

At the end of May I, as many members did, had the great pleasure of attending a reception here at the Scottish Parliament to mark the 150th anniversary of the Scottish Football Association. We heard from a number of speakers including David Duke, of Street Soccer, who told a powerful story about how involvement in football had helped to turn his life around and how Street Soccer was doing the same for many other participants.

We heard from new Scottish FA President Mike Mulraney about his priorities for the association, particularly in relation to the on-going challenge of facilities—an issue that we fully recognise and on which we will continue to work with the association in order to achieve a solution. We also heard from Sam Milne, who is the Scottish FA club development officer, about the positive impact that football had made on the lives of women, and the significant benefits to their physical and mental health through participation in recreational football.

At the event, the Scottish FA presented its strategic plan to MSPs and it continues to reinforce the power of football with Government and across the political spectrum on a regular basis. That is something that I believe in, and we will continue to work in partnership with the association to realise its benefits.

We have talked about the importance to our physical and mental health of being physically active, and how the Scottish FA’s drive and determination to provide more opportunities to play football for as wide a range of participants as possible is paying dividends. Our national game continues to grow in popularity and to reach wider audiences, and I know that the Scottish FA is committed to continuing to grow and develop the game.

As has been said, football is not just about participation. Supporters are the lifeblood of the professional game and it is vital that their role is recognised. Fans should be able to have real influence over the future of the clubs that they love and support. That is why, earlier this year, we launched the fan bank, which is intended to support organised fans groups to become more involved in ownership of their clubs, thereby ensuring that their interests are represented on clubs’ boards and protecting the clubs for generations to come. The fan bank will make a positive change to football and will help to put real power in the hands of the supporters and local communities. As Kenny Gibson mentioned, Falkirk Supporters Society was the first recipient of a loan from the fan bank, and we are in discussions with a number of other supporters groups about potential bids. I am glad that the fan bank initiative has proved to be popular with football fans.

Stephen Kerr

I am grateful for the positive tone of the minister’s closing remarks. Does she agree with Ben Macpherson, Brian Whittle and others that there is not equality of opportunity for all Scotland’s young people when it comes to access to facilities and community assets? Does she agree that we should unite across the parties and do what we can to ensure that—with regard to playing sport of all types, but particularly football—every community asset is sweated?

Maree Todd

Absolutely—I happily agree with that. However, as I have pointed out, football is a shining light among all sports in respect of participation in it across the socioeconomic divide.

A number of members have raised the issue of unacceptable behaviour by football fans. I know that, from time to time, the behaviour of fans can cause concern and disruption. However, let us be absolutely clear: the vast majority of football supporters go to games to support their team, to see their mates, and to have a great day out, whatever the final score is.

In my opening statement, I mentioned that the SPFL had record aggregate crowds of more than 5 million last year.

Douglas Lumsden

If the issue is about treating fans fairly, does the minister support a review of licensing laws so that football fans are not discriminated against? Not everyone is lucky enough to get invitations to corporate hospitality, at which alcohol is free flowing, at sporting events.

Maree Todd

As we are all aware, the issue of licensing pre-dates devolution. It came about in the early 1980s after an old firm cup final. The issue has been raised with me by clubs and football authorities, and I have said that I would need to be persuaded that no unintended consequences would follow if a law that has been in place for over 40 years were to be removed. I would be happy to look at the evidence that they bring forward. Obviously, Police Scotland’s view on any change in the legislation would be vital. We cannot ignore incidents of antisocial, threatening or offensive behaviour, and we condemn the actions of people who engage in such actions. I fully support Police Scotland in taking appropriate and proportionate action in response to any such acts, but they are something that all of us with an ability to influence and change must contribute to eradicating.

I was honoured to be invited to attend the women’s Scottish cup final at Hampden at the end of last season, and I was truly inspired by the quality of the game and the commitment of the players to engaging with their fans long after the final whistle. We saw both captains being in with their fans for longer than any of the official supporters in the hospitality suite—Mr Lumsden mentioned hospitality—were there for. Long after they had left, the captains were still out on the field engaging with the fans. That can be done, and we should work together to ensure that the very small proportion of people who see football as a cause for antisocial behaviour can begin to rethink their ways.

Neil Bibby and a number of other colleagues mentioned the review of Scottish football that was launched on 21 June by the Scottish Football Alliance and the Scottish Football Supporters Association. We have a really good relationship with the SFSA, and it has been really helpful in brokering discussions on the fan bank with supporters groups. We are also working with it to support grass-roots clubs to purchase defibrillators, which can be the difference between life and death when someone suffers a cardiac arrest on a football pitch.

The alliance’s review covers a very wide range of issues, many of which—issues relating to the formation of the leagues or the division of prize money, for example—are simply not for the Scottish Government to comment on. That said, I have already met the football authorities to discuss the alliance’s review, and I will continue to discuss it with them and, indeed, to challenge them on how we can continue to grow and improve the game in Scotland.

We have heard what football means to people in respect of participation and what it means to fans to support their club and their country. There have been a few surprises for many people in Scotland—if there are many people listening. I must admit that I never thought that I would hear the Scottish Tories campaigning against the singing of “God Save the King” at football matches.

We have also heard about how much of a force for good football is in local communities and people’s lives—not least in the lives of children and young people. I passionately believe that sport, including football, has the power to change lives for the better. The evidence of that is all around us.

There is no doubt that, like all of our society, football represents both the best and the worst of us. Scotland has a complex relationship with alcohol, and it is right and proper that we address that. Football has a part to play there, as do other sports. Again, I commend the women’s national team for taking an ethical stance on alcohol sponsorship. It does not have alcohol sponsorship on its shirts, and that is a really good thing.

Yet just as we are a disputatious nation, we will not allow rivalry to become something less edifying. Our football authorities can and must do more to support tolerance, diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the sport. That cultural shift is every bit as important for football as a sport as it is for us as a society. So many contributions have shown that when football leads, real change can be achieved in attitudes and behaviours. Football can and does play a powerful role in leading the way to address wider societal challenges.

Yes, football divides—but it also unites. Scotland has had a long love affair with the game that we founded, and it still holds a special place in our hearts. It reaches the parts that other sports and other activities cannot. It offers community and opportunity to many who often can feel that they are outside of mainstream life, and it allows wee girls and wee boys to pull on a shirt and to dream big. Like no other issue could, it has brought this Parliament together to agree on its contribution and its importance to the cultural, social, economic and sporting fabric of Scottish life. It truly is the beautiful game.

Stephen Kerr

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

Might it be helpful to clarify for the chamber and the Official Report that the Scottish Conservatives are all in favour of singing “God Save The King”—at every possible opportunity—but we think that the England football team should find another anthem?

Mr Kerr will be well aware that that is not a point of order. We will therefore move on.