In today’s Birmingham derby between Birmingham City and Aston Villa, a Birmingham fan ran onto the pitch, ran up behind Jack Grealish, Villa’s best player, and threw a right hook that connected. Thankfully, Grealish seemed to be okay, and went on to score the winning goal. The man has been arrested and will likely face a lifetime ban from football, and likely, criminal charges.
This incident came on the back of a similar one on Friday night, where a Hibernian fan jumped onto the playing area and got into a physical confrontation with Rangers’ James Tavernier as he went to take a throw-in.
In some ways, it’s a miracle that this hasn’t happened before. Due to the size of the pitch, it's virtually impossible for clubs to be able to prevent fans from running on and attacking a player. During the bad old days of the 70’s and 80’s in English football when hooliganism was rampant, fences were put in front of the stands to keep fans in. Following the 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield, where 96 fans were crushed to death against those barriers, they were removed.
Ever since, clubs have had to rely on fans to have the good sense not to leave the stands. Entering the playing area against the regulations at just about every ground results in a ban. That’s usually been enough to prevent all but the most committed pranksters from running onto the pitch.
Situations like this usually bring howls of righteous indignation and the belief that ‘Something Must Be Done’. Birmingham City can expect to receive a hefty fine, and possibly a points deduction. I don’t believe in collective guilt (or innocence), so usually, I wouldn’t believe in a collective punishment.
But I can’t see any other way. Let’s hope it doesn’t, but should this happen again, then I think the game should immediately be stopped and the team of the attacked player gets given a 3-0 win. The team who the attacker supports should instantly be given a three-point deduction.
If basic human behaviour is beyond some people, and they are so stupid and misguided as to believe that he was somehow fulfilling his duty as a fan by attacking someone for having the temerity to be playing for the opposition, then that person needs to know that such actions will only hurt his team.
This incident has to be a turning point for fans all over the UK. Many were rightly quick to condemn the man who punched Jack Grealish, but what all fans need to do is look at their own behaviour. Football in England has taken on a toxic air.
Levels on fan hostility, abuse and violence are rising. There have been incidences of anti-Semitism from Southampton and West Ham fans in recent weeks. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana thrown at him by a Spurs fan. There was a violent clash between Millwall and Everton fans before their recent FA Cup game that saw one Everton fan get slashed in the face with a knife.
Those are just recent examples. All clubs have fans like this. All villages have their idiots.
I live in the UK, so I can’t say if it’s the same anywhere else, but the UK has become a much nastier place in recent years. Selfishness has increased. Empathy has decreased. Hate crimes are rising at rapid rates.
What’s strange is that this has only spilled over into football. Other sports, including Rugby and Cricket, where passions run just as high, and unlike football, drinking alcohol in the stands in allowed, don’t have nearly as many problems as football does.
It’s become normalised for many people to behave in football stadiums in ways that they never would in everyday life. The high cost of football tickets means that your average fan likely has a well-paying job, which in turn implies some kind of education and social skills, so it’s mystifying how those people believe that all social mores can be thrown out of the window whenever they sit in a football stadium.
If people behaved in everyday life the way they believe it’s okay to behave in a football stadium, then they’d be unable to hold down a job (if by some miracle they got through an interview in the first place). They’d never be able to enter into a relationship. They’d likely have no friends, and not be on speaking terms with their family. As they would be hurling abuse at total strangers, as they do in football stadiums, they would also be getting into a ton of fights, so would also spend a lot of time in hospital and jail.
The problem is even worse online and on social media where people hurl vile abuse at complete strangers for either being fans of another team, or for being a fan of the same team who thinks a little different for them. It’s got to a point where for several people their enjoyment of football is more about baiting fans and revelling in the misfortunes of other teams rather than any success their team has.
It’s sadly commonplace for any footballer brave/stupid enough to have a Twitter account to receive a barrel-load of abuse, even from fans of their team. A lot of that abuse is just inhuman.
Today, one attention-seeking Birmingham City fan decided to double-down on the mindless dickheadry demonstrated by his fellow fan and decided to tweet Jack Grealish a picture of his brother’s tombstone and telling him of his “delight” his brother died.
The media also has a responsibility for this. They help to whip people up into a fervour before games. They have a way of covering the game where the negatives, i.e. a bigger team losing to a smaller one are covered far more than the positives, which adds to the atmosphere of schadenfreude and derision.
They allow referees to be mocked and abused for mistakes, or even correct decisions they don’t agree with, which leads to players, fans and coaches seeing the referee as fair game. This has had the effect of referees at amateur levels, who tend to be teenagers, being verbally and physically abused and giving up refereeing, which is destroying amateur and youth football.
Football is supposed to just be a distraction from everyday life. It’s supposed to be something to be enjoyed. It’s not supposed to be hostile. It’s not supposed to be a vehicle to enable people to abuse complete strangers.
While it was a depressingly real incident, today’s attack on Jack Grealish is a metaphor for modern football. That man in Birmingham acted out of sheer intolerance. Many others do exactly the same. If we all stopped for a moment and took a deep breath before speaking or acting and all tried to show the tolerance we have in our everyday lives, football will be a better place for it.