STRICT liability or government intervention won’t solve the growing problem of anti-social behaviour at football matches, according to a leading expert.

There have been calls for stiffer punishments for both clubs and offenders following a spate of recent unsavoury incidents including players being attacked on the field by supporters, and missiles being thrown from the stands.

But Dr Niall Hamilton-Smith, a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at the University of Stirling who has worked extensively on the subject of football-related violence and how it is policed, believes immediately introducing stringent measures would be ineffective without first dealing with the reasons behind this recent upturn in hooliganism.

He believes trying to mend the fractured relationship between fan groups and the police – stretched to breaking point during the now-repealed but formerly unpopular Offensive Behaviour at Football Act – and encouraging self-policing among supporters would be far more useful than simply punishing clubs for bad behaviour.

He said: “We saw a batch of incidents over the weekend with fans coming on to the pitch, which is an unwelcome development to put it mildly

“Bringing in strict liability has been mentioned as a solution, but just doing that alone won’t really solve the problem. Before you can make a club wholly responsible for actions within its stadium, it would be better to work out everyone’s roles and responsibilities first and get agreement on that.

“If there’s an incident at a match and the club, the police, and the match commander have all done what could be reasonably expected of them, then that happens sometimes. But if it turns out that there had been a failure on the club’s part somewhere along the line, then perhaps at that point a fine might be appropriate.

“But just going in straight away and fining clubs might perpetuate a sense of grievance that it’s just the police hammering clubs and fans, rather than the police facing up to any role they might have had. It just becomes a stick to beat the clubs or the fans, rather than having groups working together to try to move things forward.

“And I don’t think it would be helpful to have another big political intervention as we saw after the so-called “shame game” in 2011 which wasn’t extraordinary in terms of the levels of arrests or disorder. People chose to make a political crisis around that and I don’t think there is any merit in doing so around the current debate either.

“What would be more helpful would be to have an increase in behind-the-scenes dialogue to establish a better balancing of responsibilities between fans, the police and clubs.

“During the Offensive Behaviour Act, there was undoubtedly significant damage done in the trust between certain fan groups and the police, something the more engaged police officers recognised at the time. That was damaging in terms of the informal influence they could have in encouraging good behaviour within these groups.

“There’s an opportunity now to re-forge relationships again to find a way forward. And with some urgency.”

Dr Hamilton-Smith felt police attitudes towards fans had caused some fan groups to take on a more militant, hooligan edge that hadn’t been there before.

He added: “There was a feeling when we spoke to more moderate fans that policing during the Act had driven some Ultra groups towards more hardcore, hooligan-based individuals. And it’s that mingling between fervent young supporters with others out simply to cause trouble that is problematic. What you want is those moderate supporters to self-police to some extent, and to disassociate themselves with the hooligan element. That needs to be encouraged more.”

Dr Hamilton-Smith, who is also associate director of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, felt Football Banning Orders for fans who misbehave could also be a useful deterrent, but preferably issued alongside education programmes.

“Banning orders tend to be used very narrowly in Scotland,” he added. “There won’t often be conditions attached which are often required to make it effective. So if somebody is associated with disorder outside of the ground there is no point just banning them from the stadium for home games. You need to be able to tailor the banning order to the circumstances of the individual.

“When they’re imposed, they tend to be fairly blanket orders, long bans for many years. What might be more effective, especially for incidents of lower-level disorder or sectarian hate speech, are shorter bans but alongside re-education programmes, working alongside the clubs. That more creative use of football banning orders might be more effective in eradicating that problem."