The safety of footballers is back in the spotlight after a man was charged with assaulting Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale after the north London derby earlier this month.
It followed several unsavoury incidents towards the end of last season, including Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp being headbutted by a Nottingham Forest fan during a pitch invasion at the City Ground.
Swindon Town players were also punched and kicked by Port Vale supporters on the field after losing their semi-final second leg on penalties at Vale Park, while Nathan Jones, manager of Luton Town at the time, labelled some Huddersfield Town fans as a “disgrace” following his side’s play-offs exit.
These came in the wake of Scunthorpe United’s teenage goalkeeper Owen Foster being attacked during a pitch invasion by home supporters at Bristol Rovers on the final day of the League Two season.
Sharp’s assailant was jailed for 24 weeks, while a 35-year-old man has been charged over the Ramsdale incident at Tottenham and will appear in court next month.
In terms of the clubs, Port Vale, Huddersfield and Bristol Rovers were fined over the pitch invasions. Everton were also fined £300,000 after supporters twice came on the field during May’s Premier League game against Crystal Palace, whose manager Patrick Vieira was confronted by a home fan when trying to make his way to the away dressing room after the final whistle.
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom, however, is adamant more needs to be done by the police, clubs and governing bodies to stop fans coming on the field or a player will suffer serious injury before the season ends.
“What happened with Billy was absolutely scandalous,” he exclusively tells The Athletic about the attack that left his captain requiring four stitches in a facial wound. “Bill was stood off the pitch, his hands on his hips and minding his own business. And he is attacked.
“Then there was the Port Vale game, we saw the same with Patrick Vieira. Now again with Rammers (former Sheffield United goalkeeper Ramsdale). It keeps happening.
“The problem is times have changed. Fans coming on the pitch, I appreciate most want to celebrate. I’ve done it, back when I was a kid. I went on the pitch to celebrate. But not everyone is like that any more. That’s the problem. It is no longer safe.
“I experienced it as a player. I got caught by fans in the play-offs, when with Barnsley at Huddersfield (in 2006). We won 3-1 and the fans came on. I think Bobby Hassell got hit that night. That has always made me wary when people come on the pitch.
“There needs to be a plan, as we’re coming into that part of the season when pitch invasions start happening. Three or four months from now and it’ll be the final game. Then, the play-offs. We need to be ready or something will happen.
Casemiro’s reaction. 🤣🤣pic.twitter.com/EbTRtoD9pV
— Paul, Manc Bald and Bred (@MufcWonItAll) January 19, 2023
“Someone is going to get seriously hurt. Even more than Billy and even more than that goalkeeper in Australia (Melbourne City’s Tom Glover required stitches after being hit by a metal bucket during a pitch invasion by fans of city rivals Melbourne Victory before Christmas).
“People keep saying, ‘We need to change’. But what are we going to do?”
Heckingbottom believes he only had a lucky escape as the Forest fans poured onto the pitch last May thanks to the quick thinking of United’s assistant manager Stuart McCall and head of media Kevin Cookson.
“Macca and Cookie did well for me that night,” he says. “I was 100 per cent oblivious to what was happening but Macca got me out of the way. Only at that stage did I realise there were a few after me.
“Cookie then pushed me in the back to get me down the tunnel. I would have been copped, without a doubt.”
Forest were charged on August 5 with a breach of FA Rule E20, whereby the Premier League club had “failed to ensure that its spectators, and all persons purporting to be its supporters or followers, conducted themselves in an orderly fashion and refrained from using threatening and/or violent behaviour whilst encroaching onto the pitch area, following the completion of the fixture”.
As yet, the case has not been heard but the FA did fine Manchester City £260,000 in October for a breach of the same rule at their final home game of last season against Aston Villa, whose goalkeeper Robin Olsen was assaulted.
Heckingbottom’s call for firmer action is backed by the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association.
Ritchie Humphreys, the PFA’s player services executive, says: “What happened at the end of last season was something that really united players. They’re watching these incidents happen, with players being harassed, abused and assaulted and thinking, ‘That could easily be me’.
“These are colleagues, maybe former team-mates and friends being attacked. The thing that stood out in the contact we had with people like Paul, was their view that there was nothing stopping it from happening and that the security in the grounds was totally inadequate.
“We worked with the League Managers’ Association to really try to communicate to the authorities quite how angry members were about this.”
Chief constable Mark Roberts, who is the head of the UK’s Football Policing Unit as well as a lifelong Manchester City fan, remembers the days when fences were the norm at English football grounds along with large, packed terraces, where safety could not always be guaranteed as fans swayed one way and then another.
“You might be unfortunate enough to end up behind a crash barrier,” recalls Roberts. “A lot of us thought, ‘This is uncomfortable but it must be all right because it always happens’.”
Football has come a long way since then. But, as was made glaringly obvious by the events at Forest, Port Vale et al towards the end of last season, there is still some way to go.
A quick glance at the police’s mid-season report into football for 2022-23 reveals arrests were up 11 per cent to 999 in the six months to December 31, while banning orders issued by UK courts rose by 230 per cent to 343.
Arrests for pitch incursions were down by 79 to 120 for the same period, a fall of 39 per cent. Nevertheless, such behaviour remains a big concern for the police.
“From our perspective,” says Roberts, “when fans go on the pitch, you don’t know if they are going to slap a player on the back, ask for their shirt, spit at them or assault them. By the time someone is on the pitch, it is too late.
“We are taking action and people can’t complain if they go on the pitch and get a banning order. The courts need to understand. Invariably, we get the excuse, ‘Oh, it was just a moment of excitement’. But I go back to the point that we don’t know if someone is running on the pitch because they are excited.”
Roberts sees fan groups as key to eradicating pitch invasions, adding: “None of us want fences back. You don’t want fences, you don’t want moats. But, for me, the contract with fans has to be: if we’re not having fences and moats, there needs to be an acceptance that you don’t go on the pitch.
“Fans groups and others need to condemn it. It (going on the pitch) has to be unacceptable. And if someone does breach it, there has to be a sanction, a deterrent.”
Asked by The Athletic what extra measures could be taken, such as increased police numbers in the stadium or better qualified/paid stewards, Roberts replies: “I remember the days when we’d have police lining the pitch, certainly behind the goal. But we don’t want to deploy lots and lots of officers. Frankly, we have other things to police.
“It is a club responsibility. I do think clubs are pretty good at trying to manage it. When I was in charge of policing at Old Trafford and they were really good (as a team), it was a brilliant security operation.
“They had dedicated teams of stewards with football boots on. They’d be fit and would be there to prevent anyone from getting to players. Just a bit of thought: you don’t want to be running across the pitch, slipping and sliding with 70,000 people laughing at you.
“There are sensible things that the clubs can do to try and mitigate the risk. But the best route is for fans to recognise it. The fans’ groups and associations need to condemn it.
“When we arrest someone and ban them, let’s not have fans’ groups saying, ‘They were just celebrating’. Let’s think of the bigger picture.”
In response to the unsavoury scenes last May, the EFL joined together with the FA, the Premier League and the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) ahead of the new season to launch a stiffer set of sanctions against anti-social behaviour.
Automatic club bans were brought in for those invading the pitch, carrying pyrotechnics and drug use, while it was also made clear the consequences of having a criminal record. The FA also pledged to bring in tougher sanctions for clubs.
Those messages will be reinforced in the coming weeks and months, and particularly towards the end of the season.
“The increase in football banning orders highlights that illegal behaviour will be confronted head on by law enforcement authorities working in partnership with football authorities and football clubs, while further work is being developed within the game to reduce disorder at matches,” says a spokesperson for the EFL.
“Most recently, the EFL worked in partnership with the Football Supporters Association to develop sanctioning guidance for clubs to ensure a proportionate and consistent approach when dealing with incidents, while also implementing education and restorative justice programmes to tackle various forms of poor behaviour.”
The FSA, for their part, have reiterated their message “stands are for the fans, the pitch is for the players” several times already this season. That messaging will continue, as will the group’s engagement with the PFA and the game’s authorities.
“Players are in their place of work and shouldn’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder,” says FSA chief executive Kevin Miles. “We saw last season, it just takes one idiot among a thousand people to attack a player.
“It is important to remember that entering the field of play is illegal, even if your intentions are celebratory, and football banning orders can follow.
“The consequences of repeated pitch incursions could be reduced allocations, alcohol sale bans or other measures, which all make football a worse experience for fans.”
Further measures are in the pipeline, including a revamp of how stewards are trained. Bob Eastwood, the EFL’s head of security and safety operations, told last Thursday’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s hearing into safety at major sports events that his body was working in conjunction with the Premier League on a new pilot scheme to standardise a national stewarding qualification.
Eastwood also revealed to the MPs that a new reporting system has been introduced for EFL clubs this season, whereby details of all criminal activity — “whether that is throwing items or going on to the pitch and so on” — are now submitted after every fixture.
The intention is to then analyse the data, meaning any problems can be nipped in the bud quickly by a combination of the clubs and police. Asked by Dr Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central and Acton, if anti-social behaviour was up or down since the new reporting system was introduced, Eastwood admitted a true trend would only emerge in two years.
But he added: “There are a small number of incidents — the use of pyrotechnics, people going on the pitch — whereas, last season, I think with the end of lockdown and bringing people back into the stadia, people expressed themselves in ways we all wished they did not.
“With football fans mirroring society and society’s problems, we ended up having those behaviours that we have now started working really hard alongside clubs and partners to tackle.”
Whether that trend continues once this campaign reaches its climax — or, as Heckingbottom, describes it, “the time when these pitch invasions become so commonplace” — remains to be seen.
Certainly, the PFA insists there can be no repeat of last season’s problems.
Humphreys says: “We had a situation last year where players and staff were basically being forced into a position where they needed to look after their own security and to use their own judgment as to whether there was a threat to their safety.
“That just can’t happen again. Every pitch invasion is good-natured until it’s not, so they need to stop.”
Asked about April and May being a potential flashpoint, Roberts says: “You are right about the end of the season. We all see it. And it is really frustrating. From my perspective, if City win the league then I want to see the players lift the trophy.
“Having seen the Etihad last game of the season, there were an awful lot of stewards there. There were police ringing a box where the players go in, with stewards running out to bring the players in. In fairness, City have the finance to do that. I am not really sure what else they can do.
“You see a lot of clubs make a massive effort with lots and lots of stewards. But if you have a few thousand people coming over a fence, that is really difficult without making it a very violent confrontation with the stewards.
“That’s why it has to be educational, along with sensible plans around protecting the players and getting them off the field as soon as possible. You don’t want that confrontation.”
Heckingbottom’s anger over the attack on his captain at the City Ground was only increased by Oli McBurnie and Rhian Brewster subsequently being arrested and charged over the alleged assault of Forest fan George Brinkley.
The charge against Brewster was dropped in July but McBurnie had to stand trial for two days in December. He was found not guilty at Nottingham Magistrates’ Court.
After the verdict, the EFL posted a statement noting its surprise “that charges were brought against Oli” and how it is “a criminal offence for fans to enter the field of play, and therefore Oli should never have been put in this position”.
The EFL also called for a review into what happened at the City Ground, something that Heckingbottom heartily backs.
“The only people breaking the law that night were the fans who came on the pitch,” says the United manager. “I am not saying we can prosecute them all — we can’t. But we (Sheffield United) ended up with two players in court.
“The amount of money that was spent prosecuting two players who were in their place of work and trying to get off safely, having just seen one of their team-mates attacked, could have been spent preventing these people from getting on the pitch in the first place.
“How do we sort this? Something has to change. I honestly don’t know what. That’s not my field. But I want the review mentioned by the EFL in their statement to happen.”
United were particularly vexed by comments made by Roberts after McBurnie had been acquitted. The UK’s football police chief admitted players must be protected from pitch invaders but also added they cannot have “carte blanche” to assault those who enter the field.
“Comments have been made since that are washing over it,” adds Heckingbottom. “We can’t keep saying, ‘Ah, but the players have to behave in a certain way?’ Yeah, run for your life and get off the pitch.
“Sort the problem out. If you are a group of performers on stage and a group charges the stage, what will happen? Do you tell those performers you have to behave in a certain way? No, of course you don’t.”
Asked about his comments in the wake of the McBurnie trial verdict, Roberts replies: “Footballers ‘not having carte blanche’ was taken slightly out of context.
“What I said was, footballers, as with everyone, have a right to go about their work. The way you solve the problem is by making sure fans don’t come on the pitch. When fans go on the pitch or players in the stands, it gets harder.
“While the responsibility of not going on the pitch is on the fans, if they do go on footballers can’t have carte blanche to assault them. That’s what I actually said.”
The EFL are expected to raise the matter of a review into the City Ground events once again at their next meeting with the police. On this and suggestions McBurnie should not have stood trial, Roberts adds: “The McBurnie case, there was clearly an allegation.
“There was some evidence of an offence. It was investigated and considered by the CPS that a charge was relevant. It went to court. And he was acquitted. The right process was followed.
“I am always willing to talk to anyone about football at the EFL. But I am not exactly sure what the review would tell us, in that particular case. Of course, the problem does not arise if there aren’t people on the pitch confronting players.”
(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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