Last weekend saw three instances in British Football where players were threatened by the fans. Chris Smalling was pushed by a streaking fan in Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, and a Hibernian fan went face to face with Rangers captain James Tavernier. However, the most shocking incident was in the match between Aston Villa and Birmingham City, where a Brummy fan stormed the pitch and punched Villa captain Jack Grealish from behind, before being escorted off the pitch to a rousing applause from his fellow supporters. It marked a dark weekend in football, and again raised questions about player safety and fan involvement.
Let’s not mince words, all three of these were poor acts from fans. Invading the pitch and streaking is one thing, just a ploy to get a laugh and some attention, but to push, confront or blatantly punch a player is disgusting, and should not be tolerated. With particular focus on the Grealish incident, the fan was swiftly jumped on by stewards, who then escorted him out before he was later placed in a holding cell, but it was in the moments after that are worrying.
Birmingham and Villa is a rivalry and a famous derby, this is true. Rivalry is what makes sport great, and competition feeds off of it. But there is a fine line between rivalry and cowardly, shameful behaviour. As the fan was being taken off the pitch, he proceeded to blow kisses to the crowd, who were cheering and applauding him. Apparently, this is what constitutes rivalry in football, the endorsement of attacking players. Credit to Jack Grealish, who got straight up from the hit and played it off, before proceeding to score the winner. A proper response from a player who was attacked, but had he gone after the fan it would’ve been understood. Keep in mind, these players may be public figures, they may be scrutinised and criticised, but they are still human, and this is still a job for them, the fact of the matter is Jack Grealish was attacked when he was working. Imagine going to your workplace and having a stranger try and hit you from behind. If the fan got a clean connection Grealish could’ve easily been knocked out cold. Worst case scenario, the fan has a knife, and we are having an entirely different conversation.
The fan was then sentenced to 14 weeks in jail for assault, which fair enough is in accordance with the laws surrounding assault in the UK, as no doubt the prosecutors didn’t reserve special treatment for Grealish and factored in that he wasn’t injured, luckily. He was also given a stadium ban of 10 years, which is where the gripe truly is. 10 years is not enough. The man who did it is only 27 years old, meaning that when he is 37 years old, he can go back to spectating, and spend the long remainder of his life attending matches. The punishment isn’t severe enough, he should receive a stadium ban from all stadiums across Europe, not just in the UK, there is no place for this in sport. Jack Grealish is just a footballer going about his business, he doesn’t need to look over his shoulder for any potential idiots trying to hurt him.
We shouldn’t stop there, Birmingham have to be punished. It was their stadium, their supporter, they have to accept some responsibility. Denouncing and banning him isn’t going to be satisfactory, they need to play their next match behind closed doors, and potentially be docked points as punishment for this. That should be the case for similar circumstances. It may seem unfair on the team and other, respectful fans, but it may give idiots like this man second thoughts about commiting such a stupid act, knowing that they’re putting their team’s chances to be in the Premier League in jeopardy, with their actions. It will also punish the moronic supporters who cheered this man, as they won’t be able to go see their team play, and their team’s position in the league will suffer as a result of them taking a rivalry way too far.
Lastly, security needs to be improved. Everyone in England has moved on from the 80s, hooliganism isn’t as prevalent as it was, violence isn’t much of an issue and games don’t require fencing and netting separating fans and players. There is also no need for a significant police presence as there once was, allowing for an atmospheric, enjoyable experience for everyone involved. However, this may only be the beginning, if other idiots can see how easy it is to get on the pitch, to a player and attack him or her. By all accounts, majority of stewards are low-paid young men or students, who aren’t professional security guards. It may cost more, but clubs need to seriously invest in security guards if they’re concerned about player safety. Checks need to be done at the gates, and real security guards need to be the buffer between fans and players, if we want to prevent or minimise events like what happened over last weekend from happening again.