Pitch invasions have been a part of football since the beginning of time. Often harmless, the game has seen fans entering the pitch in their thousands after their team has been involved in a famous win. We have seen individual fans run on to the pitch naked and in modern times, fans coming on to the field of play to try and get a selfie with one of their heroes. In general, there has been an acceptance that this is football, a sport where all human emotion lives whether it be good or bad.
However in the last two weeks we have seen pitch invasions that have disgraced this great sport that we love and even more worryingly compromised the safety of football players. We have seen Rangers captain James Tavernier being confronted by a Hibernian fan, Manchester United’s Chris Smalling shoved by an Arsenal supporter and the worst of them all, Birmingham City fan Paul Mitchell who punched Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish during the Second City Derby 10 days ago.
When we saw that “fan” (for want of a better word) take to the pitch to assault Jack Grealish, it really was a moment that shocked the football world and any sane human being. Naturally, we react to it by calling the perpetrator all the names under the sun. Now as stated before, while most of us react with horror, for me there is a growing concern that the more we see this the more it becomes accepted as the “norm”. A sad state of affairs within society now means that an ever expanding proportion of a football crowd experience life shot through abuse and violence and therefore these incidents will look like nothing at all to some inside the respective stadiums and to some, even perhaps funny.
Many have had the opinion in the past that pitch invasions are part of a strange world. They’ve been seen as something that often comes from joy or momentary exuberance and it is often seen to be unfair how it can be punished so harshly. Depending on the situation and the severity of an invasion, guilty fans have received anything from police warnings to a fine and in some cases lifetime bans from football stadiums for their idiotic actions. But if the events of the last two weeks have shown us anything, apart from the fact Paul Mitchell needs help, it’s that any deterrent that has been put in place to stamp this out has not been sufficient. The problem is that for the type of football fan who carries out this obscene behaviour, the punishment they would receive would be nothing compared to the punishment they will likely have already been dished out in life.
So what can we do to stop this worrying trend in the game I hear you ask….
Writing this article led me to look back at some issues that have occurred in the game recently and it was frankly quite alarming. I believe that failure to deal with some of these issues that have been interpreted as “minor” go some way to explain how we get to the stage where fans think they can enter the pitch and confront players so aggressively. This season alone we have seen a banana skin thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in a North London Derby in the Premier League. There has been Dele Alli hit by a plastic bottle in a North London Derby in the Carabao Cup. North of the border in Scotland many incidents have occurred including Scott Sinclair being hit by a glass bottle thrown by a spectator.
My point is, if we simply try and address it only when it happens and not consider how everything else feeds into the act before it happens, we will never stop it happening. Condemnation is understandable and easy but ultimately impotent. Society, the media and the game need to ensure that they don’t condone or allow such behaviour as more and more will feel justified or validated in even more extreme behaviour. It will keep escalating until we are talking about a tragedy involving a player.