Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Modern football has yet to make its mark on the Ayrshire coast. The usual breed of uncultured workhorses do battle in a ground consisting of one creaking wooden stand and a trio of vast terraces. Hardly the sort of place the average fan would expect to be detained for football cyber crimes.

But that is indeed what happened to me in August, last year. Two stewards approached me and demanded I follow them off the terrace for a quick word. Baffled, I complied. I’d been half watching the game, a turgid affair between Ayr United and Queen of the South, intermittently checking other scores on my phone. While I was hardly frustrated at missing the action on the pitch, my mind was racing, trying to think of anything I could possibly have done to incite the wrath of the stewards. I was soon to find out; Ayr’s head of security emerged, smiling like a hardboiled detective about to crack a case. “You’ve been spotted,” he announced. “Transmitting data.”

I told my interrogator, quite honestly, that I had no idea what he was talking about. With a smirk, and a shake of the head, he told me to knock it off, laying out the evidence against me; I had asked a steward for directions, therefore I had never been to the ground before. I was seen looking at my phone during the game. And I had been using another electronic device before kick off.

I took the stand in my own defence. This was indeed my first time at the ground, I am a phone addict and I am also a weirdo who plays on a Nintendo before watching Scottish Championship games (don’t judge me). My tormentors remained unconvinced until I told them the name of a friend who was manning the turnstile. Apparently my knowing that detail exonerated me from the crime of “transmitting data” and I returned to the terrace, where some poor fool was already being ushered away to the ministrations of the security chief.

I was inclined to write the whole business off as one of those unaccountable phenomena exclusive to Scottish football, like the Caramel Wafer Cup or Airdrieonians. But the bewildering indignity of the experience stuck with me, and I began to look into the matter further. A moment’s research revealed I was not alone. The fans of Hull City, Charlton Athletic and a bevy of other clubs have all exposed their fans to this strange ritual, something between a police interrogation and an airport security patdown.

The cause of this suspicious climate is something called courtsiding. Gamblers’ informants travel the sporting arenas of the world, transmitting up to the minute data on events so that bets can be placed in the seconds before systems are updated, giving shadowy consortiums the chance to effectively print money at the expense of betting companies. It seems dark forces are at work, oozing between the seats of EFL arenas and the cracked terraces of windswept Scottish grounds alike. If clubs are to be believed, hordes of consortium spies are descending on their territory, transmitting their precious data like spies behind enemy lines. Trying to pick out courtsiders through some sort of bizarre profiling is bound to cause tension, especially when one of the criteria for being a spy is “never visiting the ground before”. Apparently, fans are only permitted to watch games in stadiums they’ve been to already. Makes sense.

The fact clubs consider the interests of profit driven, billionaire betting companies over their own supporters is telling. Courtsiding isn’t actually illegal in the UK, and ought to have no direct impact on clubs. Perhaps that no longer matters. Fans might be paying their admission on the gate, buying pies at the snackbar and sinking pints in the clubhouse, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the big bucks poured in by the betting industry. Football clubs are, with few exceptions, money making enterprises and it’s no wonder they sacrifice fans on the altar of profit to appease their corporate gods, but the fact this is going on at places like Ayr is the real kicker. What have we to look forward to? A future in which one can’t so much as turn up to watch the local amateur team without being set upon by betting company goons?

Being rounded up and threatened with ejection by hi-vis footsoldiers making £20 a game is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a fan at a football match. But it’s the latest move in the war between big money and matchgoing fans, a war in which clubs seem to be fighting against their own supporters with increasing ferocity. They ought to remember their roots. In the long-term, pissing off the regulars will do infinitely more harm than good.

Words by Jonny Keen
Illustration by Meneer Heirman