'Friendly' Scottish duo pilot mixed seating zones

By Jamie LyallBBC Scotland at Paisley 2021 Stadium
St Mirren and Partick Thistle supporters
St Mirren and Partick Thistle supporters shared sections of the ground

Scottish football has long been derided for a dearth of original thought.

While many lament the apparent innovation vacuum across the national game, a pair of its prominent envoys aligned on Friday night to treat supporters to something novel.

When St Mirren and Partick Thistle were drawn against each other in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup - two clubs similar in stature and geographical proximity, and with no television coverage of the tie - ruminations began.

It started with a phone call, Thistle managing director Ian Maxwell ringing his counterpart in Paisley, Brian Caldwell.

"I hope you're going to be innovative with the pricing," chided Maxwell, who represented both clubs during his playing career.

"Never mind the prices, let's go full-scale, try something completely different that Scottish football hasn't seen in a long time," Caldwell replied.

"What are you thinking?" asked Maxwell, his interest piqued.

St Mirren versus Partick Thistle
Paisley played host to an array of half-time entertainment

Caldwell's brainchild was thus: in addition to their hefty away allocation, Thistle supporters would be invited to share a section of the Main Stand and the entirety of the Family Stand with their hosts in the Paisley 2021 Stadium.

"A lot of our supporters are friendly with their supporters," explains Caldwell. "Why not mix them so that they can wear the colours, sit together and enjoy the match together?"

Supporters were consulted, and the regulatory boxes ticked with Renfrewshire Council and the emergency services.

Caldwell and his colleagues set about arranging an assortment of pre-match and half-time entertainment and activities for youngsters in and around the ground.

Two giant pandas wielding corner flags grappled in the centre circle with a manic four-limbed sunshine - not a scene from a game show, but the mascot race.

"The atmosphere's all about having the fans quite close to each other," said one Thistle visitor. "I think when the fans are completely segregated it takes away from the atmosphere.

"The mixed zone promotes tolerance - that's really, really good. It's just a football game, not a war. I wouldn't advocate it for the whole ground."

St Mirren and Partick Thistle mascots
The mascot race took centre stage in Paisley

Even as frustration grew among the home fans with the Buddies toiling, ultimately falling to a 2-1 defeat, the atmosphere in the shared zones remained genial.

"It does feel odd," conceded a Buddies man. "Anything St Mirren can do that brings the supporters back in, they've got to think about it."

Another St Mirren regular added: "I think it could certainly help the atmosphere and the overall experience irrespective of what happens on the pitch.

"It means I can come with my Thistle-supporting friends and sit together without anyone sitting on their hands."

There was, perhaps, an added effervescence in the mixed zones, both of which were populated fairly evenly with each set of supporters.

And the football equivalent of a pantomime chorus threatened to break out when Thistle striker Kris Doolan loped into the home box amid suspicions of offside.

Fans who might otherwise have stayed home were able to attend, bring their children and, in some instances, their children's friends - even though they supported the opposition.

Partick Thistle
Thistle emerged 2-1 victors in Paisley

"If St Mirren win, I'll take my St Mirren-supporting pal down to the pub and he can buy me a pint," said one wizened observer, draped in a Thistle scarf, in between mouthfuls of pie.

"If Partick win, I'll buy him a pint, and if it's a draw, well, we'll need to buy our own drinks."

Mixing supporters might not be in Steve Jobs territory as far as radical pioneering is concerned but, where practical, Friday's successful venture may lead to replication in Paisley and beyond.

In rugby, Pro12 champions Glasgow Warriors have reaped the benefits of community outreach initiatives and the cultivation of an interactive matchday experience geared towards family fun.

"Here are two clubs who are very close to Rangers and Celtic, they're very family-oriented, they can mix the fans, the fans can come together and enjoy the matchday experience," says Caldwell.

"They do all this at the rugby, it's very similar to what we're trying to do.

"There are 42 clubs in Scottish football; I think sometimes we forget how family-oriented the majority of clubs are. We get tarred with a bad brush because of small incidents from years and years ago.

"Football's changed, stadiums have changed; we need to make football a family matchday experience."