Authorities seeking solutions after land invasions raise concern | Football violence

Authorities seeking solutions after land invasions raise concern | Football violence

Jhe end of the season is the most emotional moment of the footballing year. It’s when teams lift trophies and escape falling and fans salute their heroes, with the Premier League promising to come to a dramatic conclusion in the final round of fixtures on Sunday. But in 2022, the climax of the season saw emotion turn to disorder, once again causing concern at all levels of the game.

Pitch invasions by fans have caused problems at Nottingham Forest, Northampton, Everton and Port Vale this week, as playoff games and relegation games ended with players targeted by fans. On Thursday Robert Biggs, a 30-year-old Forest season ticket holder, was imprisoned for 24 weeks for running onto the pitch and headbutting Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp.

That same night there was a pitch invasion at Goodison Park after Everton’s spectacular 3-2 victory over Crystal Palace which averted the threat of relegation from the Premier League. The director of the Palace, Patrick Vieira, was involved in confrontation with Everton fan where Vieira appeared to aim a kick at a taunting man. The Football Association and Merseyside Police separately said they were investigating the incident.

During this time the the government threatened five-year bans on fans convicted of selling or using Class A drugs, as Boris Johnson said ‘middle class cokeheads’ drive crime across the country.

University of Manchester academic Geoff Pearson, a leading voice on fan culture and crowd safety, has argued that a ‘carnival’ culture among some fans has been exacerbated by stadium absences caused by the pandemic. But he also says behaviors have been unlearned during this time and that similar sanctions imposed on Biggs are needed to reverse the trend.

“There is an accountability issue,” he says, “and it takes time to correct this behavior. But if you look back in the 80s people said that hooliganism was intractable and between 1988 and 1994 we understood that pretty quickly. We are now in a much better situation than before and the police already have the tools they need. But in the end, it’s the fans who will start to reinstate the boundaries and it will be enforced by those banned.

Football authorities are also clear that the legal framework exists to bring the current problems under control. As a statement on pitch invasions from the Professional Footballers’ Association put it: “These are foreseeable events, it is a criminal offence, and it is unacceptable.”

But the FA, the English Football League and the Premier League have started new rounds of discussions about how to deal with the mounting post-Covid disorder.

Police and stewards try to chase away fans after a pitch invasion at Goodison Park
Police and stewards attempt to weed out fans after a pitch invasion at Goodison Park. Photography: Carl Recine/Action Images/Reuters

This week, the EFL said it would support the use of measures to impose a ‘capacity reduction’ on clubs whose supporters invade the pitch or engage in other prohibited behaviour. The cuts could mean the closure of support blocs, targeting areas seen as harboring troublemakers. However, it could also simply mean preventing fans from sitting in the first 10 rows of any booth and pushing them away, in order to physically stop incursions.

Other ideas discussed include a focus on stewardship. The absence of neon tabards around football pitches has raised eyebrows among some observers, with calls for clubs to spend more money on stewards. Pearson dismisses this as a practical solution. “You can’t prevent home fans from taking to the pitch with the police,” he says. But he argues that improving crowd intelligence among police and stewards is crucial. One of the proposals discussed by the authorities is to take on stewards from visiting clubs at away matches, to better apply informed crowd control.

The Premier League said it had told its clubs to remind fans that pitch invasions are illegal before the competition’s final round of matches kick off on Sunday. “Clubs will have all necessary procedures in place to ensure the protection of players, staff, match officials and supporters,” a spokesperson said.

Football stakeholders say their top priority is to protect the safety of those playing or coaching the game, and their willingness to consider all remedial action is a sign of how seriously they take the current problem. With that, they are in line with the police. England’s highest-ranking football officer, Chief Constable Mark Roberts, said he was “alarmed” by the new wave of incidents.

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“The fans entering the field… [have] has sometimes resulted in assaults and altercations with players, managers and club staff – which is completely unacceptable,” Roberts said. “The pitch is where the players work and like everyone else they need to be able to feel safe. It is the responsibility of clubs to ensure that fans can view matches safely and we will continue to work with clubs to see what can be done to help prevent such incidents in the future.

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