The Billy Sharp assault showed that pitch invasion culture is a problem that authorities need to solve – Uber Turco News

Of course, we’ve always had pitch invasions. They are as wedded to our fan culture as accusing referees of corruption, making sure you walk to the same route to the ground for fear of spooking the laws of superstition and making an internal promise to a higher being that you don’t believe in that you will be extra virtuous if a tense match goes your way. Just me on that last one? Maybe.

The most iconic piece of football commentary in English football concerned the encroachment of supporters onto the playing surface. A year later, Celtic fans streamed onto the pitch of Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional to celebrate their triumph in the 1967 European Cup.

Pitch invasions became something of the tradition at clubs’ final league match of the season, whatever the cause for celebration or commiseration. The pitch holds a magical place in supporters’ hearts. We always wanted to stand on it through merit. This is the next best thing.

But over the last few weeks, we have seen an explosion in pitch invasions. After Championship matches at Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium, Nottingham Forest’s City Ground and Bournemouth’s Dean Court, supporters rushed the pitch to celebrate. Fulham supporters went one better, invading the pitch after the victory against Preston that earned them promotion and again after beating Luton to secure the league title.

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I understand the argument in favour. For some – for almost all, in fact – pitch invasions are purely an expression of joy.

There is clearly some planning involved; watching as fans climb over small walls and advertising hoardings in anticipation disproves the truth that this is a simple reaction to the euphoria of triumph (on Tuesday at the City Ground they were forced to wait as two consecutive penalties went against them).

Even so, very few who enter the pitch do so with the intent of anything other than basking in the magic of the moment. Do a kneeslide, touch the grass, pretend for a second that everyone was here to watch you.

And those who decry them will stand accused of policing joy or, worse, killing it. In part, the rise is probably fuelled by a reaction to the corporatisation and sanitisation of the fan experience, which has increasingly become a little homogenous in places. The rise of tifo culture is one way in which supporters rail against it. Invading the pitch, creating as memorable “I was there” moment as possible, is another. And at their best, they can still be that and nothing more.

Forest supporters celebrate during the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final match between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United at the City Ground, Nottingham on Tuesday 17th May 2022. (Photo by Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
For almost all football fans, pitch invasions are an expression of joy but recently the tone has shifted (Photo: Getty)

Yet the tone has undoubtedly shifted. Passion, rather than a pure unwitting reaction, has become weaponised.

In recent days, we have seen a Nottingham Forest fan arrested after video footage showed Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp being headbutted. The man in question has subsequently been jailed for 24 weeks for assault occasioning actual bodily harm and given a 10-year football banning order.

Mansfield Town’s Jordan Bowery was reportedly shoved by a Northampton Town supporter and a smoke bomb was thrown at players. On Thursday evening, Patrick Vieira was confronted by supporters at Goodison and players were reportedly physically assaulted at the Port Vale vs Swindon Town playoff match.

The norm now is for some fans to shun congregation around their heroes and the rushes to hug one another, but to approach opposition fans as a show of aggravation.

You can create your own theory: anti-establishmentism from supporters fearful that their culture is being beige-washed; cocaine culture – although there is no hard evidence for this cause and effect yet; a reflection of growing societal and political unease; growing tribalism that means taunting the opposition is as important as celebration; a reaction to the psychological impact of lockdowns that reinforced how much football meant and thus provoked a freedom of behaviour when they ended. As always, there is no one answer.

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Supporters have quickly learned that very little can be done to stop them. At the City Ground on Tuesday, a ring of stewards stood around the perimeter of the pitch, roughly 10 feet away from one another. Unless Mr Tickle had embarked on a mass breeding program or hi-vis jackets are produced to create their own forcefield, they stood no chance. And they are not trained – nor paid enough – to deal with a rush of hundreds of people at once.

The EFL have been forced to act. “Over the summer we will consider what further measures are now at our disposal, including the potential use of capacity reductions or other similar mitigations,” a statement on Wednesday read. Their responsibility is to protect the safety of players who deserve to feel safe at all times. That simply cannot be guaranteed if the status quo escalates.

And if it’s very hard to stop the invasions, punishment becomes the only solution. You start with closing grounds for mass invasions and end with points deductions for repeat offenders. If that punishes with it the well-behaved majority, it may well force people to re-think their actions. It has to.

The only real conclusion is that this is all a damn shame. Nobody wants to regulate joy and nobody wants to tarnish the reputation of the many due to the actions of a grim few. Football supporters have too often been unfairly lambasted en masse by Governments to the point of victimisation. But we have a problem, one that isn’t being policed effectively and isn’t being self-policed either. Something needs to change before it escalates to the point where we have an incident that nobody wishes to even conceive.

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