Getting to grips with . . .

Football’s pitch invasion crisis: what can be done?

Assaults on fans and players have led to calls for some draconian crowd-control measures

The spectre of football hooliganism returning to England has sparked calls for draconian measures to tackle pitch invasions following a number of incidents that have led to players and fans being assaulted in recent weeks.  

Manchester City became the latest club to launch an investigation after Aston Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen was assaulted during a pitch invasion prompted by the dramatic late comeback that saw City clinch the Premier League title on Sunday.

On Thursday, a 30-year-old Nottingham Forest season ticket holder was jailed for 24 weeks for running on to the pitch and head-butting Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp, while Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira drew condemnation as well as some praise after he appeared to kick out at an Everton fan following a post-match pitch invasion by jubilant home fans at Goodison Park.

English football’s ‘broken social contract’

“There has been a sense this past week that English football’s social contract has been broken,” said Oliver Holt in the Mail on Sunday. “The assumption has generally been that the pitch is sacrosanct and that anyone who encroaches on it is committing trespass and will be dealt with. That contract, though, requires mutual respect for it to work and that respect has gone.”

Speaking to The Guardian, Manchester University academic Geoff Pearson, a leading voice on fan culture and crowd safety, argued that a “carnival” culture among some fans has been exacerbated by the absences from stadiums caused by the pandemic, and that many of the good behaviours engrained over several decades have been unlearned.

Sky Sports reported that the FA has raised concern at the rise in anti-social behaviour from fans but said it is up to clubs to “play a vital role in addressing this issue”, as well as taking their own action against those that break the rules and the law.

Enforcing the law or changing the culture

Football’s priority is protecting the safety of those playing or coaching the game, said The Guardian, and the willingness of the game’s various stakeholders “to consider all corrective measures is a sign of how seriously they take the current problem. On this, they are in line with the police.”

Stricter enforcement of existing laws along with “capacity reduction”, which could see sections of stadiums being closed off or fans restricted from sitting in the first ten rows of any stand, is being considered, while clubs are being encouraged to spend more money on stewarding.

There has even been talk of separating supporters from each other – and the pitch – by netting or fences: a throwback to the 1980s when pitch invasions and widespread fan violence were commonplace.

Yet Tom Reed in Football365 said more draconian measures are not the answer, rather there is a need to embrace fan culture rather than santise it.

“On a sociological level, what we might be seeing is a pushing-back by fans who have sat, mainly quietly, through a long period of sanitisation of the sport since the Premier League’s creation in 1992,” he writes.

He argues that the introduction all-seat stadiums and a concentration on commercialism has dulled the English football fan experience.

“We need to accept that smoke-coloured mass celebrations are here to stay and, on the whole, are nothing to be frightened about,” Reed writes. Rather than target fans, “the absolute best thing for the sport is to democratically include supporters in the running of the game at all levels”.

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