By Andrew Warshaw
March 11 – English football headlines after an action-packed weekend were not about how results impacted on the Premier League but two separate incidents of a spectator invading the pitch, with pundits calling for the strongest possible action by the authorities.
‘Mindless Morons’ said one newspaper, ‘Football’s Day of Shame’ read another after the incidents at Birmingham and Arsenal that cast a dark shadow over the game, rekindled memories of the dark days of hooliganism and prompted urgent calls to better protect players.
In the first and most serious episode on Sunday, in the second-tier Championship, a fan ran on to the pitch and threw a punch at Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish 10 minutes into the always hotly contested derby with rivals Birmingham City, striking the side of the player’s head.
The 27-year-old assailant, who was quickly restrained by a security official, was arrested and is due to appear in court today. Grealish, who was uninjured, went on to score the only goal of the game after half-time.
In a strongly-worded statement, Villa said they were “appalled by the disgraceful attack”
“A red line has been crossed by this cowardly on-field assault on a player, which is unprecedented in English football,” it added.
“We trust the perpetrator will feel the full force of the law and the authorities investigate the circumstances surrounding today’s deplorable incident.
“Local rivalries are part of the fabric of the game. However, as we are sure our friends at Birmingham City would agree, to have a player’s personal safety placed under such jeopardy is a serious cause for concern for the entire football community.”
Grealish, one of the most gifted and sought-after players outside the Premier League, said he was unaware of what happened at the time. “I was walking into position and then just felt a whack around the side of the face,” he told Sky. “Obviously there’s rivalry in football but I don’t think there’s any place for that really.”
Birmingham confirmed that the offender will, as a minimum, be banned from their stadium for life. “We deplore the behaviour of the individual who committed this act and rest assured he will be banned from St Andrew’s for life,” it said. “The club will also support any further punishment this individual may face in the eyes of the law. What happened has no place in football or society. Jack is a Birmingham lad and regardless of club allegiance should not have been subjected to this. There are no excuses.”
Just under six hours later, a supporter ran on to the pitch at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, one of the most ultra-modern, state-of-the-art arenas in European football, during the high-profile, globally televised fixture with Manchester United and shoved United’s England defender Chris Smalling.
Arsenal were quick to issue a statement saying “we condemn the behaviour of the individual” and that the club would “be working closely with the police in their investigation. The individual will also be banned from Arsenal matches home and away.”
The two attacks followed a number of recent incidents of crowd trouble north of the border in Scottish football.
“We have reached the point where banning individual fans for going on the pitch is simply not enough of a punishment,” declared former England international Phil Neville, now head coach of the England women’s team as well as a respected TV pundit.
“It cannot be a sufficient deterrent, because it keeps on happening, and my worry is that it is going to take an incident where a player is stabbed or seriously hurt before things change,” Neville told the BBC.
“What has happened in the past few days has highlighted the size of the problem, but I actually think things have been getting worse for a while and the situation should be a major concern for the clubs and the governing bodies. Drastic action is needed – either through points deductions or by emptying stadiums and making clubs play behind closed doors.”
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