Fans’ ugly behaviour is not just about football – it’s about society | Jonathan Wilson
Roker Park, the final game of 1989-90. Sunderland were sure of their place in the playoffs; Oldham knew they would miss out, largely because of the strains of an extraordinary season in which they had reached the League Cup final and the FA Cup semi-finals. Oldham won 3-2 and, as the final whistle went, home fans invaded the pitch.
Slowly they made for the corner of the Roker End where the away fans were housed. I was on the terrace a few yards away and remember clearly the sense of sudden anxiety as my dad gripped my arm and started to make for the exit. But then something remarkable happened. The invaders stopped a few yards from the corner flag, raised their hands above their heads and clapped, a salute for Oldham’s extraordinary season that would end with nothing.
As Mike Keegan’s book on that season, This Is How It Feels, makes clear, that moment entered Oldham folklore, confirmed to them that the rest of the country also respected what they had achieved, those performances against Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester United. It remains one of the most surprisingly moving things I’ve seen in a football ground.
That was a very unusual invasion, and it was never clear at what point the decision was collectively taken to applaud the away fans. But even the more common-or-garden invasions can be glorious, an ecstatic release of pent-up emotion at the end of a tense game at the end of a season. The temptation is to say: “Let it go,” that football cannot simultaneously celebrate and market the passion it generates and then protest at these euphoric outpourings.
But the problem is, some fans can’t be trusted, and no matter whether the crowd numbers a dozen or several thousand, it takes only one to make an invasion extremely dangerous. In the past week, we’ve seen four incidents in England. Port Vale fans appeared to punch and kick Swindon players after their League Two playoff semi-final win. Mansfield’s Jordan Bowery was manhandled and a flare was thrown by Northampton fans after the Cobblers lost their League Two playoff semi-final.
The Crystal Palace manager, Patrick Vieira, seemed to aim a kick at an Everton fan who had been taunting him after they had confirmed Premier League survival. And worst of all came at the City Ground on Monday when, amid other altercations, a Nottingham Forest fan called Robert Biggs head-butted Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp, leaving Sharp requiring stitches and earning himself a 24-week jail sentence.
Two things appear to be happening simultaneously. The first is that there are more pitch invasions than there used to be. That in part is simple copycat behaviour: one club’s fans celebrate with a pitch invasion and so others decide that is also how they should celebrate – while simultaneously realising there is little chance of mass banning orders being imposed if hundreds run on to the pitch.
But there was also a sense in the post-Hillsborough years that invading the pitch was taboo. Invasions had been why fences were erected, and everybody had seen the consequences of that. That Roker Park invasion in 1990 was notably cautious, as though there was a recognition there was a need, as far as possible, to avoid alarm. The generation that understood that almost intuitively has moved on.
The second is that those invasions seem more likely to be violent towards opposing players and staff than ever before, and this is a widespread issue; it’s not about one club. Nor is it just about football: violent crime has risen steadily in the UK since 2013. Violent crime by strangers dropped during lockdown, but has accelerated since.
More anecdotal evidence would suggest the widespread use of cocaine by fans has added a more aggressive edge to a tribalism fuelled by social media. And that means that, realistically, pitch invasions, however joyous, have to be stopped. It’s a shame, because football is richer for these eruptions of glee, but players, coaches and other fans should never be placed in danger as they manifestly now are.
So what can be done? It’s unrealistic to expect stewards on minimum wage, many of whom have received only cursory training, to stand in the way, but equally it’s unrealistic, in terms of cost and resources, not to mention the look, for pitches always to be ringed by police. The Football League this week suggested it was considering partial stadium closures as a deterrent, although collective punishments always seem unsatisfactory and it surely can’t be that difficult with CCTV to identify the majority of those responsible. A more straightforward countermeasure may simply be to cover the front few rows of seats with tarpaulin, although that would obviously reduce capacities.
But really, more than anything, this is about culture – the culture of football and the culture of society. There’s no reason for fans not to get along: there were two fairly serious incidents involving Eintracht Frankfurt ultras in Seville this week leading to six arrests, but fundamentally tens of thousands from Frankfurt and Rangers drank harmoniously together. It can be done.
We live in a world in which mockery and taunting the Other is commonplace. Anybody not of our tribe is contemptible. Everything is reduced to Them and Us. Football has to put immediate safety measures in place to protect players, but the truth is pitch invasions wouldn’t be a problem, these moments of anarchic fun could still be permitted, if people could just stop being idiots.