Fan attacks on players will end in a stabbing unless action is taken now

Sitting in the office, dreaming of being outside instead of trapped behind a desk overseeing orders due to be delivered throughout the UK, something extraordinary happened.

A man from the street outraged that his favourite alcohol hadn’t been delivered to his local supermarket, burst into the room.

Absolutely seething, he ran up behind me and swung a punch that luckily for me only grazed the side of my face.

When I stood up to confront him, he kicked me and screamed expletives. As security dragged him out the front door, he blew kisses to nobody in the car park.

Okay, this didn’t really happen. But this wouldn’t happen because there’s respect for people in their place of work. Unless you’re a professional footballer, judging by recent incidents of abuse and assault by fans encroaching on the pitch.

Attacked: James Tavernier

Rangers skipper James Tavernier was taking a throw-in in front of Hibernian fans at Easter Road when a home supporter jumped a barrier, evaded a steward and then kicked both ball and player.

During the Birmingham derby, Aston Villa talisman Jack Grealish was punched from behind by a City fan.

The responses

Former Spurs and Blackburn midfielder Tim Sherwood was asked on BT Sport’s Saturday Morning Savage show what his response would be.

“If they come [on] with aggression, you’ve got every right to chin them,” he opined to laughter from the studio audience and fellow panellists.

Maybe not the best advice, but the fact remains that footballers simply doing their job have the right to feel safe in their place of work.

Tavernier said of the Hibs incident: “My wife was watching, and it must have been disgusting to see that on TV. She was worried a little bit.

“It shouldn’t happen, no player should be targeted by fans on the pitch, or coins thrown. These things shouldn’t happen. It’s down to clubs and their security to stop it.”

In his post-match interview, Grealish said “I was walking into position and I just felt a whack around the side of my face. There’s rivalry and stuff in football, but I don’t think there’s any place for that.”

Hibernian chief executive Leeann Dempster said: “I can use the word unacceptable but that isn’t strong enough. The person you saw is in custody. He won’t come to another football match at Easter Road. Ever.”

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard added: “When we’re getting to the stage with fans running on to the pitch, we’ve got a problem.”

Punched: Jack Grealish

Villa manager Dean Smith condemned the attack on Grealish, saying: “It should never happen at a football game, whether it be a local derby or not.

“Security should be better, it’s why we kick off at 12 pm on a Sunday to keep them out the pub. Unfortunately, some mindless moron has gone on the pitch and attacked Jack [Grealish] then you’ve got 15,000 idiots clapping him as well, which doesn’t help.”

What should the punishment be?

Cameron Mack, who invaded the pitch at Easter Road has only been charged with breach of the peace, while Paul Mitchell has been sent to prison for 14 weeks for his attack on Grealish.

Pundit Gary Neville tweeted about Birmingham City: “The club are going to have to take a huge punishment for this to act as a deterrent in the future. A points deduction or empty stadium for 10 games!”

Dempster said that with Hibernian “nothing was off the table” as a result of recent crowd problems.

A particular issue with punishments that target the fan base is that 99% of supporters would never act in this way. However, it’s the 1% that needs to be punished and prevented from being able to enter the stadium – let alone run onto the pitch – in future.

Financial punishments may urge the club to step up their security. But if a supporter has decided that he is going to enter the field of play, then it is really hard to prevent that.

An issue that we run into with potential punishments is who takes responsibility for these incidents? Is it the stewards?  Is it the clubs? Is it social media culture? Or is it the TV and radio pundits who whip fans up into a storm?

Ill feeling

It can’t be expected that a steward earning £8.70 an hour is going to really put himself in danger for a job that they only work at every two weeks.

Football clubs themselves are going to be unwilling to close stands or heavily punish their own fans in case the supporters revolt and boycott merchandise or even games.

Flashpoint: Hibernian’s Easter Road stadium

Social media has given fans a place where they can hurl the most toxic slurs, which must surely bleed into crowd behaviour on match days.

Meanwhile, the pundits – who have to have an opinion on everything and are often biased towards certain clubs or fan bases – foment ill feeling.

Ultimately, the FA and the SFA have to come down heavily on both clubs and set stringent rules to not only protect the game but guarantee the safety of players.

If they don’t, how long will it be until football witnesses an incident similar to that of Monica Seles, the former world No.1 women’s tennis player, who was stabbed in the back while seated during a break in play in 1993?

With growing concerns over the rise of knife culture in the UK, surely this is what the police and football’s governing bodies fear the most.

There should be punishments in place forcing the clubs to take responsibility for their fanbase.

Banning individual fans from football grounds is incredibly hard to enforce.

However, if there was an automatic behind-closed-doors game for every time a fan ran onto the pitch, or even a point deduction, clubs would clearly take more action than they are currently doing.

More training – and better pay – for stewards could help but it won’t fix the problems at the heart of crowd troubles. But a solution needs to be found before a player is seriously injured.

Although we are still a long way away from the hooliganism that blighted the game in the 70s and 80s – and no-one wants to see the return of fences at football grounds – something has to be done to stop these violent acts from becoming an increasingly regular focus of concern.

All photos taken from Wikimedia Commons.