HOPEFULLY, we are a long way from making drastic and knee-jerk decisions around the fear of pitch invasions becoming a new trend in British football. Anyone who remembers the days of fences, threats of electrification, the feeling of being penned-in like cattle and the “us and them” environment where policemen stared into the eyes of the underclass will be hoping the current spate of incursions can be nipped in the bud.
We don’t want to return to the days when football grounds were hostile places, we have moved on when it comes to crowd behaviour and although there are occasional outbreaks, most people want to go to matches to watch a game – lord knows, they’ve paid enough to do so.
The attack on Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, because “he is a knob”, was especially nasty and very personal. The authorities acted quickly, imposing a 14-week custodial sentence on the assailant, but what was worrying was that it was so easy for the assault to take place.
These are worrying times in Britain, with a growing sense of lawlessness in some segments of the community. Knife crimes are on the increase – one recent TV interview, on Merseyside, included a mother endorsing the carrying of a weapon by her son because it made him “safer” – and the taking of a life seems to be accepted as something that just happens.
Austerity, which has been cutting and trimming for a decade, has eroded social services, security and basic law enforcement. This environment has created a gap for feral behaviour to grow, for the animal instincts to flourish and for crime to go unpunished. Britain’s security services can close-in on terrorism and, by all accounts, they have been quite successful, but stop a group of teenagers from killing each other seems to be impossible – even though our streets are covered with wall-to-wall CCTV.
On top of this, Brexit has damaged the very fabric of Britain and created a spirit of defiance that manifests itself in the form of bullying, licensed hooliganism, racism, antisemitism and myopic nationalism. When the UK voted to leave the European Union, it appeared to unleash all the bigotry and political incorrectness that had long been considered to be unfashionable and out of step with modern and progressive society. Furthermore, the very idea of political persuasion, which has largely been respected in Britain down the years, suddenly created rifts that have split families, friendships and the country’s ability to reach consensus. From the outside, Britain looks a mess.
Against this backdrop, toxicity like football hooliganism has come to the fore once more. In 2018-19, just a couple of years after Chelsea fans were accused of outright racism in Paris, Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling was subject to abuse from the Stamford Bridge crowd. Last season, Liverpool fans created the most intimidating atmosphere seen outside a stadium in years, attacking the Manchester City coach before a UEFA Champions League tie. And now we have the Grealish incident.
There was no way that the attacker was going to win this one. Everything is recorded these days and in a football stadium, there’s no hiding place. All Jack Grealish had done “wrong” was to play for Birmingham City’s rivals, Aston Villa. It’s hooliganism, but not as we once knew it.
Where there are large crowds, there are always a few disaffected individuals who will try to make their name by running on a pitch. There are not substantial barriers between the crowd and players and that has created a better climate for the game in the UK. However, equally concerning is that if a man can enter the field and assault a player, what’s stopping someone with a weapon – or even dirty bomb – from doing likewise? We’ve seen how terrorists can infiltrate public events with their tools of evil evading detection. Just consider how many fans take flares into grounds when they have already been searched (Euro 2016 was a case in point) – somehow, they get them past security.
The recent spate of incursions is a reminder that there are some unhappy people out there who will sacrifice the luxury of watching football to make their point. It should also set an alarm bell ringing that the UK’s football stadiums are relatively easy to breach.
Doubtless security will be ramped up around the country in the aftermath of the Grealish incident. But equally important is the need to find out what can be done about the amount of anger in Britain today. The country needs to rediscover its historic reputation of being reasonable and moderate – and then perhaps it can sit comfortably with itself once more – at home, at work and at football matches.