A spate of recent on-field incidents in which players have been targeted for abuse or assault reflect a warped view among some where they are deemed to be fair game
15 April ~ March was not the best month for Birmingham City. On March 22 the club had nine points deducted for making losses of £10 million more than the permitted limit over a three-year period from 2015 onwards, a punishment which ruled out any lingering hopes of reaching the play-offs.
The previous week, Birmingham had made headlines around the world when one of their fans ran on the pitch and threw a punch at Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish. Pitch invasions by fans were a rarity before the 1970s, and were substantially reduced, though not stopped, when fences started to go up around grounds by the end of that decade. Since the post-Hillsborough removal of the barriers, most incursions onto the field have been mass actions by fans for a range of reasons – celebrating victories, staging protests against a club’s owners or confronting rival supporters. Players have been targeted by individual pitch invaders before, notably Villa’s Peter Enckelman also during a Birmingham derby in 2002 and Chris Kirkland of Sheffield Wednesday in a game against Leeds seven years ago. But the attack at St Andrew’s was one of several such incidents in a short space of time. Chris Smalling was pushed by an Arsenal fan during Manchester United’s match at the Emirates later that day, while Rangers’ James Tavernier was confronted during an away game at Hibernian on March 8, where a bottle had been thrown at Scott Sinclair of Celtic during a cup tie the previous weekend.
In reacting to the St Andrew’s incident, pundits stressed that the perpetrator was “not a football fan”. It was an understandable comment on the spur of the moment, but also misleading. People who commit acts of violence at football stadiums could legitimately be described as fans, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.
The vast majority of fans never get drawn into violence around matches, which is in general decline – Home Office statistics show that football-related banning orders have fallen steadily over the last seven years. But it can seem that those who do get involved in incidents are more likely to be indulged by fellow fans than used to be the case. Everyone who has been a regular at football matches will have seen the occasional solitary pitch invader, more often set on trying to kick the ball than confront a player. One of their common attributes was to make a self-regarding show of applauding fellow fans as they were led away as though they had the crowd’s tacit approval. In fact, they were nearly always booed while being frogmarched around the perimeter. One of the striking aspects of the Birmingham incident was the number of people in the crowd applauding Grealish’s assailant as he tried to blow kisses to them.
Football crowds have always directed abuse at rival fans and players. Some of the most offensive songs and chants are now no longer tolerated officially, though not always effectively addressed. There were also lines that tended not to be crossed – sections of a crowd for instance might turn on someone who had thrown an object at a rival player. The difference now is that in the eyes of some, players are deemed to be fair game, their presence on a pitch as opponents of your team somehow an incitement. Fans have also become more prone to turning vehemently against their own players, stirred up in some cases by resentful press reports about young footballers from ordinary backgrounds who happen to be earning a lot of money.
Social media gets the main share of the blame for the recent rise in extremism that has just as often been stoked by mainstream politicians, but it has undeniably had a warping effect on some aspects of football fandom. People who have been immersed all week in discussions about who they hate and why carry their fixations into matchdays. The Birmingham pitch invader doesn’t seem to have been active on Twitter – or we’d have surely have heard about it – but acted on impulses that others express every day. Many clubs would be reluctant to take on the extra costs that might improve security at their grounds. So instead it’s likely to fall on fans to try to police themselves in such a way that the majority don’t suffer consequences from the actions of a reckless minority.