Ugly fan behavior isn’t just a football issue, it’s a social issue | Football violence
ROker Park, the last game of 1989-90. Sunderland were sure of their place in the playoffs; Oldham knew they were going to miss out, largely due to the strains of an extraordinary season in which they reached the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals. Oldham won 3-2 and, at the final whistle, the home fans flooded the pitch.
Slowly they made their way to the corner of the Roker End where the away supporters were housed. I was on the terrace a few yards away and I clearly remember the feeling of sudden anxiety when my father grabbed my arm and started to walk towards the exit. But then something remarkable happened. The invaders stopped just yards from the corner flag, raised their hands above their heads and cheered, a salute for Oldham’s extraordinary season that would end in nothing.
As Mike Keegan’s book about this season, This Is How It Feels, makes clear, this moment went down in Oldham folklore, confirmed to them that the rest of the country also respected what they had achieved, these performances against Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester United. It remains one of the most surprisingly moving things I have seen on a football pitch.
It was a highly unusual invasion, and it was never clear when the collective decision was made to cheer the fans on the outside. But even the most common invasions or gardens can be glorious, an ecstatic release of pent-up emotion at the end of a tense game at the end of a season. The temptation is to say, ‘Let go’, that football cannot both celebrate and market the passion it arouses and then protest against these euphoric outpourings.
But the problem is that some fans are untrustworthy, and it doesn’t matter if the crowd numbers a dozen or several thousand, it only takes one to make an invasion extremely dangerous. Last week we saw four incidents in England. Port Vale fans appeared to punch and kick Swindon players after their Ligue 2 playoff semi-final to win. Mansfield’s Jordan Bowery was given a rough ride and a flare-up was sent off by Northampton fans after the Cobblers lost their League Two playoff semi-final.
Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira seemed to be aiming for a kick to an Everton fan who taunted him after confirming the Premier League’s survival. And worst of all came at the City Ground on Monday when, amid further altercations, a Nottingham Forest fan called out Robert Biggs headbutted Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp, leaving Sharp to require stitches and win one 24 weeks in jail.
Two things seem to be happening simultaneously. The first is that there are more height invasions than before. It’s partly just copycat behavior: One club’s fans celebrate with a pitch invasion and so others decide that’s how they should celebrate too – while simultaneously realizing there’s unlikely that mass banning orders will be imposed if hundreds of people are running on the ground.
But there was also a feeling in the post-Hillsborough years that invading the pitch was taboo. The invasions had been the reason the fences had been erected, and everyone had seen the consequences. This Roker Park invasion in 1990 was particularly cautious, as if there was a recognition of the need, where possible, to avoid the alarm. The generation that understood this almost intuitively moved on.
The second is that these invasions seem more likely than ever to be violent towards opposing players and staff, and this is a widespread problem; it is not a club. It’s not just football: violent crime has increased steadily in the UK since 2013. Violent crime by foreigners decreased during the lockdown, but has since accelerated.
More anecdotal evidence would suggest that the widespread use of cocaine by fans has added a more aggressive edge to social media-fueled tribalism. And that means, realistically, pitch invasions, joyous as they are, have to be stopped. It’s a shame, because football is richer in these outbursts of joy, but players, coaches and other fans should never be put at risk as they clearly are now.
So what can we do? It is unrealistic to expect minimum wage shop stewards, many of whom have received only superficial training, to stand in the way, but it is also unrealistic, in terms of cost and resources, not to mention the appearance, that the locations are always surrounded by the police. The Football League suggested this week that it was consider partial stadium closures as a deterrent, although collective punishment still seems unsatisfactory and it is surely not that difficult with CCTV to identify the majority of those responsible. A simpler countermeasure may be to simply cover the first rows of seats with a tarpaulin, although this would obviously reduce capacity.
But really, more than anything, it’s about culture – the culture of football and the culture of society. There’s no reason for fans to disagree: there were two fairly serious incidents involving Eintracht Frankfurt ultras in Seville this week, resulting in six arrests, but basically tens of thousands of Frankfurt and Rangers drank harmoniously together. It can be done.
We live in a world where mockery and mockery of the Other is commonplace. Anyone not from our tribe is despicable. Everything comes down to Them and Us. Football needs to put immediate safety measures in place to protect players, but the truth is that pitch invasions wouldn’t be a problem, those moments of lawless fun could still be allowed, if people could just stop being idiots.
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