Authorities looking for solutions cause unrest | violence in football

The end of the season is the most emotional time in the football year. It’s when teams lift trophies and escape falls and when fans salute their heroes when the Premier League promises to come to a spectacular conclusion in Sunday’s final round. But in 2022, at the peak of the season, emotions have turned to disorder, causing renewed unrest at all levels of the game.

Pitch invasions by fans in Nottingham Forest, Northampton, Everton and Port Vale caused trouble this week as play-offs and relegation matches ended with players being targeted by fans. On Thursday, Robert Biggs, a 30-year-old Forest season ticket holder, was sentenced to 24 weeks in prison for running onto the pitch and headbutting Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp.

That same night, Everton’s dramatic 3-2 win over Crystal Palace saw a pitch invasion at Goodison Park, staving off threats of relegation from the Premier League. Palace manager Patrick Vieira was involved in a confrontation with an Everton fan in which Vieira appeared to direct a kick at a man who was taunting him. The Football Association and Merseyside Police separately said they were investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, the government threatened fans convicted of selling or using Class A drugs with five-year bans as Boris Johnson said “middle-class cokeheads” are driving crime across the country.

University of Manchester academic Geoff Pearson, a leading voice on fan culture and spectator safety, has argued that a “carnival” culture among some fans has been exacerbated by pandemic-induced absences from stadiums. But he also says behaviors have been unlearned in that time and that Biggs needs to be hit with similar punishments to turn the tide.

“There is a problem with accountability,” he says, “and it takes time to correct this behavior. But if you go back to the ’80s, people said hooliganism was persistent, and between 1988 and 1994 we got a handle on it pretty quickly. We are in a much better place now than we were then and the police already have the tools they need. But ultimately, it’s the fans that will start resetting boundaries and that will be enforced by banning people.”

The football authorities are also aware that the legal framework is in place to deal with the current problems. “These are foreseeable events, it is a criminal offense and it is unacceptable,” said the Association of Professional Footballers in a statement on pitch burglaries.

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

Police officers and stewards try to clear away fans after a pitch invasion at Goodison Park
Police officers and stewards try to clear away fans after a pitch invasion at Goodison Park. Photo: 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 fans are taking the field or engaging in other prohibited behaviour. Cuts could mean support blocs being shut down and targeting areas believed to be home to troublemakers. However, it could also simply mean preventing fans from sitting in the first 10 rows of a stand and intercepting them to physically stop assaults.

Other ideas discussed include a focus on stewarding. The lack of neon crests around football pitches has raised eyebrows from some observers and prompted clubs to spend more money on security services. Pearson dismisses this as a practical solution. “You can’t do police work to stop home fans from coming onto the field,” he says. However, he argues that improving crowd information among police and stewards is crucial. One of the proposals being discussed by the authorities is to have visiting club stewards attend away games in order to better apply informed crowd control.

The Premier League said it has told its clubs to remind fans that trespassing on the pitch is illegal before the final round of the competition begins on Sunday. “Clubs will have all the necessary procedures in place to ensure players, staff, match officials and fans are protected,” said a spokesman.

Football stakeholders say protecting the safety of football players or coaches is their top priority and their willingness to consider any corrective action is a sign of how seriously they take the current issue. In this they agree with the police. England’s most senior football officer, Chief Constable Mark Roberts, said he was “alarmed” by the new spate of incidents.

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“Fans entering the field… [have] at times resulted in abuse and altercations with players, managers and club staff – which is totally unacceptable,” said Roberts. “The pitch is where the players work and they should feel safe like everyone else. It is the clubs responsibility to ensure fans can watch matches safely and we will continue to work with clubs to see what can be done to prevent these incidents in the future.”

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