There used to be a sign in Dalymount Park that read, “Stay off the pitch — the club can’t afford the fines and neither can you.” The self-effacing humour meant the sign hit home more than the sombre PA announcements before matches you hear nowadays, but recent events have brought the issue of football fan behaviour back in the spotlight and it’s no laughing matter.
The sight of a fan invading the pitch and landing a blow on Jack Grealish in last weekend’s Birmingham derby would have been shocking if it didn’t follow similar incidents in Scotland which did the rounds on social media. Chris Smalling was likewise jostled by a jubilant Arsenal supporter at the Emirates.
Thankfully neither player suffered any lasting injury. Grealish’s winning goal was a fitting response to the act, but the familiarity of what happened is itself a cause for worry.
Football, like any sport, is emotive. This is all part of the attraction — the partisan crowds, the life or death magnitude, the agony and the ecstasy — but when these emotions spill onto the pitch, the adrenaline quickly sours. To see this sort of behaviour returning is cause for concern, not least because football is still shaking off the shackles of the hooligan era, with safe standing still a long way from returning to many English grounds.
We are fortunate in Ireland that domestic football is by and large a family-friendly affair. And although we are not immune to fan trouble in Ireland — the opening weekend of the domestic season saw fans clash after Cork City’s game against St Patrick’s Athletic in Inchicore — the League of Ireland remains family-focused.
Much backslapping ensued after the “festival of violence” promised at Russia 2018 never escalated beyond occasional isolated incidents, especially after ugly scenes at Euro 2016. But claiming that violence and anti-social behaviour are behind us in football rings as hollow as FIFA’s dismantling their anti-racism taskforce as it had “completely fulfilled its mission”.
Signs like the one in Dalymount are unfortunately not always enough of a deterrent, and for all that modern players might be pampered, their safety and security should always be paramount. The same goes for stewards, staff and other fans, but pitch invasions — especially last weekend’s example — are a particularly aggressive form of trespassing. The pitch is sacrosanct except in cases of post-match title or promotion celebrations.
Anyone who has been to a football match can attest to the relative ease with which ‘supporters’ of any club can enter the fray. Theoretically all you need is half a yard of pace on the nearest steward and the lack of any common sense. Something that in itself appears all too common as racism and violence return to the terraces.
Diagnosing the issue or speculating on its root causes are one thing, eradicating it is quite another. There was a time when fences would keep fans from entering the field of play, but such a practice was stopped after the Hillsborough tragedy that resulted in the deaths of 96 people. Although still present in other parts of the continent, such barriers represent nothing but a dark memory in football’s past.
Stadium bans seem too punitive a measure for what is essentially an individual crime. What justice is it to deny a season ticket holder the privilege of what they have paid for in these circumstances? This sort of judgement echoes another memory of the Hillsborough tragedy — the unjustified and unfair vilification of Liverpool supporters by some sections of the media.
Conversely, a hefty fine will increase pressure on clubs. Fines for setting off flares are common on big European nights in this country, yet neither the obvious danger presented nor the financial implications have eradicated the problem. And this is in a country where clubs are more likely to feel the pinch from any monetary punishment.
In the absence of an easy solution, debate will centre on whether recent incidentsacross the water are indicative of a post-Brexit fractured society or caused by the relevant authorities taking their eye off the ball. Instructive in itself, but somewhat missing the point.
What must be acknowledged instead is that football isn’t as detached from other aspects of life as it has sometimes been portrayed. After all, nothing so closely matches the divided and fraught political rhetoric of our time as football tribalism.
It would therefore be foolish to ignore the flickering of the pilot light that football has always been for our society.