Lisa Fallon: Pitch invasions fast becoming a worrying trend

Barriers may have to go up in grounds if some supporters’ reckless behaviour continues to endanger players

For a football player to say they were fearing for their life on a football pitch is a really concerning state of affairs, but that’s the reality – pitch invasions are causing that fear.

Republic of Ireland international Enda Stevens spoke candidly this week about his experience of the pitch invasion by Nottingham Forest supporters at the end of their Championship playoff clash with Sheffield United.

Sheffield United’s, Billy Sharp, was headbutted by a man called Robert Biggs, who was subsequently jailed for 24 weeks, after pleading guilty to assault causing actual bodily harm.

Stevens was a witness to the attack.

Sharp’s assailant has also been banned from football stadiums for 10 years which is a fair deterrent.

“You’re on the pitch and thinking ‘I can be attacked at any moment here’,” said Stevens.

Pitch invasions are happening again with alarming regularity and it’s hard to understand why. Perhaps it’s the lemming effect; one club’s supporters did it so everyone has license to follow suit.

There was hardly a playoff game that didn’t have a pitch invasion as the 2021-22 season came to its conclusion and they also occurred as the Premier League reached its crazy finish.

After Manchester City came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 over Aston Villa, the City faithful encroached the playing area. There were striking images of stewards who had clearly been designated to certain players, running in fours to different City players and were tasked with creating a four-person human shield around those players until they safely dispatched them down the tunnel.

Meanwhile, in the mayhem that ensued, Aston Villa goalkeeper, Robin Olsen, was assaulted.

And while most people are good-natured and just want to congratulate their heroes and get a quick selfie, there are unfortunately the small few who are just sinister in their motivations and that’s the worry.

There is no way of knowing which inclination the supporter coming towards a player has and that exposes the player to a risky level of vulnerability.

While physical attacks are not the only motive, you just have to recall the Everton fan who went up to Crystal Palace manager Patrick Viera with his iPhone in record mode.

And it’s not just in England. We saw extremely worrying scenes in France last Sunday, as St Etienne were relegated from Ligue 1, having played in the French top tier since 2005. Furious fans stormed the pitch and threw large numbers of ignited flares at the tunnel area as the players tried to flee the pitch after losing the second leg of their playoff with Auxerre, 5-4 on penalties.

They were intense, dangerous and worrying scenes to observe and more needs to be done to prevent a serious injury, or worse, occurring.

England manager Gareth Southgate commented on the recent pitch invasions, noting that they were, “a reflection of where we [England] are as a country at the moment”.

“It’s a difficult time for people. We are going to have more difficult times because of the economy and the situation we are in, but we have to look at what we are doing in terms of parenting and how we want to be viewed as a country.”

Southgate also acknowledged that he had noticed more issues since the Covid pandemic and this was backed up when British police released figures showing that arrests at football matches are now at their highest level in years.

On Wednesday night, I attended the Finalissima clash at Wembley as European Champions Italy faced South American champions Argentina. There was a good-natured atmosphere at the match but as the clock ran down large numbers of high-viz yellow vests became visible around the entire perimeter of the pitch.

It was Georgio Chiellini’s last ever game for the Azzurri while Lionel Messi put on a trademark masterclass, that only lacked a goal, although he provided two gilt-edged assists in Argentina’s 3-0 victory. Despite the metal barriers that act as a deterrent to fans encroaching the pitch, the large numbers of stewards quickly became duplicated as long lines of members of the police force filed in along the perimeters.

We still knew that if a large swell of supporters made it their business to get onto the pitch, that invariably they would manage to do that.

It crossed my mind how valuable a Messi selfie would be, let alone anything more sinister, and deep down you knew there was going to be one. There is always one. In this case there were two, but both were quickly apprehended and escorted away, yet one guy got as far as the Argentina team huddle.

Too close for comfort for many and although the purpose of his pitch invasion was a recording of his exploits on his phone, what if he had different intentions? You fear that some day there will be one, because there is always one, and it will only take one.

Wembley had problems during the Euro 2020 final between Italy and England but on Wednesday it was extremely well-organised and policed with a crowd of over 87,000 in attendance. Indeed, as a punishment for those issues, England’s Uefa Nations League rematch with Italy on June 11th is to be played behind closed doors.

No one wants to see the barriers go up that we see in other countries around the world but the problem is the behaviour of a small minority.

Southgate is right, but it’s also about trust. Without the barriers it’s all based on trust but once trust is broken, the relationship changes and barriers do go up.