Disgrace: What can and should be done about pitch invaders?

It’s always disappointing when the action on the pitch is overshadowed by an event unrelated to the actual football. This Sunday of Premier League and Championship matches was one plenty of people would have been eagerly anticipating purely for the games on offer. It’s not uncommon for tempers to slightly bubble over during encounters between bitter rivals, but no one would hve thought it would reach the point that it did yesterday.

The Second City Derby between Birmingham and Aston Villa may not be as big a deal now as it has been when both sides were in the Premier League, but it’s certainly a game of huge importance to fans and players of the respective clubs. No one would have been more desperate to win the game than lifelong Villa fan and now club captain Jack Grealish. His technical ability has made him his club’s prized possession and he’s attracted the interest of some of England’s top clubs, including the likes of Tottenham Hotspur. Nonetheless, the midfielder has remained loyal to his boyhood club and played a huge part in the game yesterday. There was a moment in the match when the play came to a halt; the ball had gone out of play and Grealish was just strolling into position. There was nothing out the ordinary until a home fan ran onto the pitch and punched the Villa captain from behind. Unsurprisingly, he was then surrounded by players and stewards, Grealish and his Villa teammates doing extremely well not to respond in the same manner. Tyrone Mings in particular made it his job to move the players away from the disgraceful fan whilst he was ushered off the field by stewards and arrested by police officers. There was a sense of justice in the final result, Villa winning the game and Grealish himself scoring the decisive goal to earn them a 0-1 victory.

Although nowhere near as bad as what we saw in the Birmingham Vs Aston Villa game, there was a similar moment during the evening fixture between Arsenal and Manchester United. With Arsenal winning the game, one of their fans entered the field of play and ran over to Manchester United centre back Chris Smalling and appeared to shout in his face before approaching the players of his own team. Smalling behaved like a complete professional giving virtually no reaction to this idiotic individual. Again, this moment wasn’t the same as the one involving Grealish; Smalling wasn’t physically attacked but there was nothing stopping the fan from doing that if that’s what his intentions were. On the rare ocassion that things like this do actually happen, they are often dealt with in a matter of seconds and then forgotten, but this shouldn’t take anything away from how serious they are. Had Grealish been properly caught by the fan’s swinging arm it could have caused him serious and permanent damage. It’s likely that the Arsenal fan heard about this happening earlier in the day and thought it would be a good idea to somewhat replicate it, and that’s something which is really quite worrying.

It’s important to address the fact that this is simply the behaviour of a few stupid individuals and in no way represents the true nature of their respective clubs as a whole. The Birmingham players did a wonderful job of displaying this when they joined a number of their opponents players in surrounding the fan who attacked Grealish. A few of them, such as Birmingham forward Che Adams, consoled Grealish after the incident showing real condemnation for any behaviour like this, even if it is from their own fans. No one wants to see anything like this happening in football for a number of reasons. The players’ safety is of utmost importance, but the fact that I’m even writing about this proves that something has been taken away from what was otherwise a hard-fought and truly entertaining game of football for all the right reasons. We’d all agree that the players from all professional football teams put on an excellent show for spectators and in no way deserve this sort of treatment from a few pathetic fans.

As serious and as worrying as it is, there’s already as many measures to prevent this sort of thing from happening as possible, without taking anything away from the fans’ experience. Having already addressed the fact that this is simply the actions of a few individuals and doesn’t represent the majority, it would be unfair and a real shame if football matches were made less enjoyable for those who consistently behave in the way you’d expect. The fans being so close to the pitch and not really having anything between them and the players, whether that’s police officers or fencing, is something that greatly boosts the atmosphere. No one would want to see this lost. It would also be virtually impossible to have enough stewards and officers to cover every space around the edge of the pitch to entirely stop anyone from entering it anyway. Consequently, the measures that are already in place will simply have to be enough if we hope to not see our game permanently changed for good. Paul Mitchell, the fan who attacked Grealish yesterday, has already pleaded guilty to his actions and will now likely serve time in prison. Having now witnessed the repercussions of this sort of behaviour, hopefully this should be enough of a deterrent to prevent or at least limit how often this sort of thing happens in the future. Two pitch invasions like this, where fans do appear to have an intention of harming or provoking players, happening in the same day is far too frequent. If the authorities can’t ensure the players’ safety with any degree of comfort then they will have no choice to but to make changes which physically stop spectators from being able to go on the pitch, undoubtedly impacting on the atmosphere and general feel of being in a football stadium.

In truth, the impact that moments like this gave on our beautiful game is somewhat of a secondary concern. The main thing is that Jack Grealish has come away from his attack relatively unharmed and will go on to display the extensive talents he clearly possesses. He was extremely lucky but the next player this happens to may not be as fortunate, which is why it’s so important that these particular individuals are effectively dealt with. Everyone loves the competition football creates but it can’t be allowed to endanger the players so, hopefully, we won’t see anything like this again for a very long time.


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