Return of the pitch invasion

JUST HOURS after Manchester City clinched their fourth Premier League title in five years, the club issued a statement about the alleged assault on Aston Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen, who was struck on the back of the head by a supporter. City’s triumph led to a pitch invasion and a period of mayhem where the safety of the players and officials came under threat. Naturally, City’s fans were happy and wanted to party, but they, like all the other fans who decided to break with convention, “crossed the line”.

Some might argue a pitch invasion is merely high spirits, the overwhelming desire of supporters to join in the fun and be among their heroes. But it is not their place to do that, they have no right to be a part of the players’ celebrations and they are not permitted to enter the field of play. The onrush of thousands of stampeding fans is a public health risk and those mostly in danger are the players, the club’s most valued assets. Moreover, that they should disregard the security of the very players they wish to slap on the back or carry shoulder high contradicts the obsessional devotion of the football fan. You always hurt the ones you love?

But should we be surprised about this unwelcome development? There appears to be a growing disrespect for authority in Britain at present, not helped by the antics of government officials and the current economic, social and toxic political climate. Add to that the debacle at Wembley in 2021 before the European Championship Final when barriers were scaled, authority challenged and values discarded, and thoughts of a new age of hooliganism emerge.

The fact is, we now find scenes of depravity, senseless violence and mob rule more shocking and distasteful than we ever did in the 1970s and 1980s. Claims that football hooliganism is a minority sport are true to a certain extent, but when a pitch invasion ends with players being assaulted, such as Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp and Olsen, then the old boundaries have been hurdled. In the past, a pitch invasion was a sign of discontent, a bid to reach the opposition fans or a sign of protest. But even then, while disorder was rife, violence was limited and players were not the target. There was a theme at one time that fans of a losing team might try to get the game abandoned, but the authorities wised-up to this.

Fences went up at grounds as early as the 1970s, giving the impression fans could not be controlled but they might be supressed. After Hillsborough, they came down for obvious reasons. An element of trust was needed and fans started to see the pitch as sacrosanct. Isolated incidents such as a protesting individual, were easy to stop, but a mob breaching the dam is impossible to deal with. Pitch invasions became very rare for a long while.

Fans should protest if they are unhappy with their club, but pitch invasions never solved anything. They damage the club’s precious turf, they have consequences, such as bigger policing bills, and they also harm the prospect of the return of terracing. And today, it would seem, they have moved beyond mere nuisance to include the possibility of violence.

Why have fans become so bold and why now? One could argue there was a lot of pent-up frustration during the height of the pandemic, but it is more likely fans are being set a poor example by some players and the passion of the game in England is simply getting out of hand. Look at the way every match is treated like a cup final, every goal greeted with hysterics, every disappointment accompanied by tears. Fans are increasingly bringing pyrotechnics into games (how the hell do they get them in?) and the opposition is pelted with missiles when they score. There seems to be no fear of breaking the law, which is more worrying than any amount of bad manners at a football match.

Goodness knows how many clubs are going to get fined for pitch invasions, but it is a trend that has to be stamped out before it is normalised. We really do not want to see fences return and if we are to rekindle the terraces, trust has to become a prerequisite again. As we have seen in the past, governments do not need many excuses to clamp down on football, let’s not give them reasons to do so.