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20th May 2022

OPINION: Pitch invasions have taken on a sinister edge, it needs to stop

Daniel Brown

When Patrick Vieira walked across the Goodison Park pitch last night, he should at no point have had to worry about his safety

Pitch invasions aren’t a new thing. They have happened for decades and regularly feature morons taking it too far, but in recent months the general feeling when they occur has grown increasingly grim.

It’s always quite obvious when a pitch invasion is about to happen. Fans sneak down to the front of the stand, waiting for the final whistle to sound (well, sometimes even before that). As the referee brings the game to an end, it happens.

For most, the opportunity to do a handstand on the pitch, take a piece of grass home to put in the bin at a later date or – always enjoyably – do a knee-slide is the main goal. Most fans don’t plan to go and hit or threaten an opposition player.

An increasing number of people – perhaps emboldened by the breakdown of common sense and reality in the United Kingdom – do exactly that, however.

In the past few days, we have seen a Nottingham Forest supporter arrested for headbutting Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp after Forest defeated the Blades in the Championship play-off semi-final. The 30-year-old man, from Derbyshire, has since been jailed for 24 weeks for assault occasioning actual bodily harm and given a 10-year football banning order.

This occurred hours after the club had specifically asked supporters not to come onto the pitch at any point during the evening.

In League Two, Mansfield Town’s Jordan Bowery was reportedly shoved by a Northampton Town supporter after their play-off clash and a smoke bomb was thrown at players. Just a day later, Swindon Town lost to Port Vale on penalties in the other semi-final. This led to Vale supporters storming the pitch and targeting a number of visiting players, with Town’s Mandela Egbo posting a photo on Twitter which showed he had been punched.

On the same day, Patrick Vieira was confronted by supporters at Goodison Park. But the former Arsenal man chose to react.

The clip of him kicking out at an individual as fans swarmed the pitch has already been seen, and people can have their own opinion on that. Another video shows the Frenchman clearly being goaded by the Everton fan infringing upon his personal space and shouting expletives in his face, before he was then pushed and surrounded by a number of other fans before walking away.

There had already been a pitch invasion at Goodison after Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored an 85th-minute winner to send the home supporters into a state of pandemonium.

Agree or disagree, Vieira was right to floor the fan in question. He was in his face, verbally abusing him, while shoving a phone as close as possible to his head. Imagine being at work and someone walks over to you, calling you every name under the sun – you wouldn’t stand for it, so why should a man, who is also at work, stand for it?

While the violence that occurred prior to the Euro 2020 final occurred outside the stadium, rather than on the pitch, it is the greatest example of this kind of behaviour in recent years. According to reports, 2,000 ticketless fans stormed Wembley Stadium prior to kick-off, which created a situation where people could have been killed.

What’s more, it was the breakdown of basic norms and the clear entitlement of supporters that was laid bare that day, indicating that something had changed for the worse in English football.

Given that it was the biggest fixture in England since the 1966 World Cup final, and was taking place after covid lockdown restrictions had been relaxed, surely the signs were there for the authorities?

Football doesn’t exist in a vacuum, we all know that. Its problems are always society’s problems first. But that doesn’t mean football can’t do more.

So why does it happen? Well, there isn’t a specific reason for that. Whether the sanitisation of the fan experience is angering some pitch invaders could be a reason, or on the other hand, more worryingly, these people who chose to invade the pitch and target a player or a manager simply do so with the intention of hurting another person.

There has been a shift. That needs acknowledging. The passion and enjoyment that pitch invasions began with has gone. It has now become an opportunity for fans to abuse the opposition face-t0-face, rather than from behind a screen.

While there might be a question posed around the standard of stewarding at these matches, that can quickly be disregarded. Fans know that very little can be done to stop them. The stewards, a lot of whom are often volunteers, are always outnumbered. They are simply not trained – nor paid enough – to deal with a rush of hundreds of people at once. How on earth could they deal with that while keeping themselves safe?

There are a number of theories for why violent pitch invasions are starting to occur more, and while there is no evidence (yet) to support the feeling that cocaine culture is having a direct impact, it is – undeniably – an issue in the game.

Is taunting the opposition becoming more important for fans? Has lockdown reinforced how much football means to people, and so they think they can do what they want to celebrate that? Or have the powers that be, as of right now, failed to adequately deal with the glaring issue right in front of them? You can decide for yourself.

“Over the summer we will consider what further measures are now at our disposal, including the potential use of capacity reductions or other similar mitigations,” a statement from the EFL read on Wednesday. These leagues, and the Premier League is very much included in this, have a responsibility to protect the safety of players. They deserve to be safe, at all times.

And yet, it appears that the ability to control their safety is slowly slipping away. It could, if not sorted soon, become too late.

Pitch invasions are difficult to stop, don’t get that twisted. For the club, the league, the stewards, the fellow fans and everyone else involved, it is hard. That’s a fact. But something has to be done.

Start with making teams play behind closed doors, close their grounds and make them play in front of no fans. Granted, that isn’t fair on the players or managers, but it will make a difference. Should it happen again, begin to hand out points deductions for repeat offenders. People will quickly have to re-think their actions if they haven’t been able to watch their side play for three weeks, or if the club has been deducted five points and they no longer sit in the play-off places.

Nobody wants to remove the joy of supporters, the vast majority of fans have – and continue to – behave well. However, they are starting to be tarnished with a negative reputation due to the actions of a vile few people. There is a problem, and something does need to change. As a sport, we are in real danger of ruining the beauty of the game.

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