A look back at a weekend marred by flashpoints which rolled back the years for the wrong reasons
In the 2018/2019 season, there has been a rise in instances of highly condemnable behaviour in British football. From racial abuse to fighting, there has been an unwelcome return of crowd trouble and fan misbehaviour more frequently associated with the dark days of British football in the 1970s and 80s. Last weekend, across England and Scotland, this season’s unwelcome return of this outdated behaviour culminated in three similar instances which should act as the final straw.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. With the meteoric rise of social media and its growing influence on modern day life, anyone can publicly air their opinions on whatever they please. In sport, this can be great, but increasingly it has become a platform for abuse – a means of airing any frustrations existing in a person’s day to day life and directing them at sports stars in abusive or discriminatory fashion.
As a result, a culture of abuse has become acceptable and somewhat inevitable. People think that what is said online, often anonymously, is admissible and that their opinions are significant, with little to no consequence attached. For me, as a 20-year-old football fanatic and student of the game since a young age, British football is currently is at its lowest ebb that it has been in my lifetime. This, I believe, is primarily down to the incessance of abuse that social media has provided a platform for. It has to change, as the danger is creeping into existence within the confines of football stadiums nationwide.
This past weekend, three flashpoints dominated the headlines: all of which featured a fan encroaching on the field of play, an increasingly common occurrence endangering the safety of players and the reputation of the British game simultaneously. On Friday, James Tavernier was confronted by a Hibernian fan who invaded the pitch while playing for Rangers. The same thing happened during Arsenal and Manchester United’s clash in the Premier League on Sunday. The most shocking however, came earlier that day, when Jack Grealish of Aston Villa was assaulted by a Birmingham City fan.
With a break in play, and his back turned to the Birmingham fan who had breached security to storm the pitch, Grealish was punched in the back of the head and sent sprawling to the turf. For those watching live, and the hundreds of thousands sharing the clip online subsequently, it was appalling.
Immediately, fans and pundits started to weigh in. The common question on everyone’s lips seemed to be primarily, “how was this allowed to happen?” Subsequently, members of the football community nationwide were left puzzled and relieved, acknowledging that this could’ve been a lot worse. Had Grealish not reacted in such a calm manner, firstly sitting on the St. Andrew’s pitch before cracking a wry smile, there could have been retaliation.
What’s more, as the fan was desperately hauled away from the pitch, you couldn’t help but dread to imagine how the incident would’ve played out had he been carrying a weapon of some sort.
Paul Mitchell, the Birmingham City fan who punched Grealish, has since been sentenced to 14 weeks in prison. He has also been given a 10-year ban from attending football matches at any ground, along with a lifetime ban from Birmingham. This now seems standard issue for this manner of incidents, but perhaps even more concerning was the reaction of some fans as Mitchell was escorted off the field.
His actions were met with cheers and applause by sections of the home crowd. Why is an act of violence, an assault on someone at work, commendable and funny in some way? Why are the rules different within the confines of a stadium?
A statement post-game from Aston Villa seemed to reflect the sentiments of the majority of the wider football community:
“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.”
Serious cause for concern, both for the safety of players and the reputation of the game on British shores. The fan arrest at Easter park on Friday night came after more serious recent issues in Scottish football stadiums, including sectarian chanting and the routine launching of missiles. But where does it end, and how? How does football deal with the problem it so evidently has?
If the British football community was in dismissive denial about a hooliganism problem, recent events have proved that the case is otherwise. Yes, these people are a minority and without doubt not representative of the wider community of fans or their clubs, but something must be done. It has been suggested that drastic action could be the way forward – points deductions or forcing clubs involved to play games behind closed doors, for example.
All things considered, it seems unfair to punish clubs for the condemnable actions of a few individuals. Yet, as a collective, the football community must attempt to root out the problem at source. Regardless of arrest, Mitchell’s act of dangerous stupidity was being figuratively liked and retweeted by his fellow supporters in their applause. His, and the other two men’s actions, should be met with shame, and a disgust as to where our game may be headed.
As Ole Gunnar Solksjaer said following the event involving his United side at the Emirates Stadium, “We just have to make sure we play football and they (the fans) watch football.” We can condemn these actions for as long as we want, but the authorities that be must act responsibly to end this problem for good.
We know the FA and the Premier League have the money for possible funding for better and larger-scale stewarding. On the part of the clubs, the statements are standardised and predictable. For example, is it possible to guarantee that a fan can be “banned for life”? If so, so what? The deterrent is not strong enough for some people – 14 months jail time for Paul Mitchell is a soft touch. For onlooking fans with similar intent as last weekend’s headline-makers, the so-called punishment likely merely serves as inspiration to take their own moment in the spotlight.
Put simply, a fan should not be able to run onto the field of professional sports play. It doesn’t happen in other countries, or even other sports, so it shouldn’t happen in football. In a world where the game is moving forward and advancing itself with the constant introduction of technology and adaptation of its laws, the safety of players is a fundamental necessity. If the relevant authorities do not clamp down on the issue, a fan looking to make a name for himself will make their decision for them – and the result could be fatal next time around.