If your knowledge of Fife Flyers’ match night was gleaned entirely from social media you’d be forgiven for thinking the ice rink was a cauldron of hatred so intense even football’s notorious Ultras would think twice before entering.
This week, Twitter was filled with reports of visiting fans being threatened, verbally assaulted and spat upon in such vast number the seats ought to be covered in phlegm.
There is, in some quarters, a worrying bid to demonise Flyers’ fans.
Their rink is old.
Their club marches to its own beat with a stubbornness than is both admirable and, at times, frustrating in equal measure.
And their match nights ARE different.
Hockey night in Kirkcaldy is old school.
The design of the rink makes it a very intimidating place to play, and to spectate, and those are qualities which should never be diluted – no more than Liverpool should ever be told to tear down their defiant “This is Anfield” sign that every player must step under en route to the pitch.
A reminder of where they are, and what the building, the team and the fans stand for.
Roused to righteous indignation, or at full throttle, the rink creates an atmosphere than is genuinely electrifying, and many visiting fans, players and coaches revel in it.
They head home hoarse and drained, and eager for the next big showdown. That is sport at its most raw and most compelling.
But, we do need to talk about fans’ behaviour.
Creating a firecracker of an atmosphere is one thing. Leaving visiting fans with an image of Fifers as folk who will gob on you, hurl every obscenity under the sun and give you a wave using a maximum of two fingers needs eradicated. The former does not remotely require the latter.
Fife Flyers’ statement on anti-social behaviour, released this week, has re-ignited a very old debate on what actually happens on a match night in Kirkcaldy.
The club referred directly to last weekend’s pulsating game against Nottingham but without comment on any specific incident on a night when, ironically, the biggest outrage came ON the ice as the Panthers’ coach let rip, snapped a stick and hurled it from the bench to the pad, earning a one game ban and a £1000 fine.
It also highlighted spitting as one specific example of unacceptable behaviour which would suggest something happened last weekend?
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The reaction on social media has been to trawl incidents from as far back as 40 years ago - examples which are impossible to investigate, but which create a very clear perception that Fife is a place of nothing but unrelenting abuse.
It isn’t. It’s a partisan, noisy, in your face rink – but it can still be all of that and ensure that all fans feel safe and welcome.
We can nitpick over the validity of any individual claim – pointless ‘whataboutery’ that will get us nowhere – or we can accept that, put together, they suggest there is a problem which needs addressed.
Even just one person stating “I went to Kirkcaldy and got spat on” ought to spark immediate concern.
And if the perception of Fife is just that, then it is costing the club revenue in the way of lost ticket sales to visiting fans who opt against travelling.
And there’s a double whammy – some fans have said they won’t buy webcasts from Fife because of the profane language being picked up by the mics and streamed into their homes where families are sitting trying to support their team.
So how do we force or encourage change?
Anti-social behaviour boils down to individuals acting like morons; aggressive, witless idiots whose conduct reverberates far wider than their own circle of braying hingers-on, and who can spoil the match night for everyone, including Fife fans.
They should be reported and removed. That’s the simple bit.
The bigger challenge is changing perceptions of match nights in Fife.
I have absolutely no doubt the vast majority of Flyers’ fans are loud and proud about their team. They’ll wind you up, noise up your star players and harangue them relentlessly, but will be the first to talk hockey with you in the bar afterwards.
And THEY are the ideal ambassadors to speak up for their team, and to help turn the dial.
Tackling anti-social behaviour doesn’t mean sternly reading out the house rules before face-off – much like the in-flight safety demo, no-one really listens – it runs much deeper.
Flyers’ statement, for me, is step one in showing they are addressing the issue, just as Coventry Blaze recently outlined its stance on social media abuse.
Steps two, three and four must focus on engaging with all fans, putting on the best possible match night, and making sure everyone is looked after. There’s a reason many sports teams have embraced champions and ambassadors – they are approachable, are recruited because they are outgoing, and the emphasis is very much on “how can we help” which makes fans feel welcome. Time to look at that in Kirkcaldy?
That word – welcome – is key.
Rewind to last January and a flashpoint which saw Manchester Storm player Eric Neilson wade into the crowd to confront a Fife fan. The visiting supporters, who had travelled in huge number to Fife for the first time were shocked at the hostility which followed.
Neilson is yesterday’s headlines, but many Storm fans have never returned to Fife.
I did wonder back then if Fife, faced with a welter of negative headlines, should have issued a clear “everyone is welcome here” message and campaign.
Eighteen months on, with a fresh warning on anti-social behaviour, maybe the time is right to activate it.
For me, it’s a win-win. You can deliver that and still lose nothing of the intensity of what remains a unique match night experience.