It is hoped that the Football League’s threat to reduce capacity in response to the growing lawlessness in our stadiums will give the mindless minority pause for thought. Of course there are no guarantees.
Here, if it helps, is a picture of what life was like for everyone not too long ago.
Football, the country’s national sport, continued to function during much of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was troubling us all to varying degrees as recently as last year. But it looked and felt very different. No one lucky enough to be allowed onto a Premier League ground during lockdown football will ever forget what it was like. Empty, hollow, barren.
The brutal attack on Billy Sharp was reminiscent of the old days of football violence in England
We in the media were the lucky ones. For us, at least, it was a valid reason to leave the sofa and close the front door behind us. It wasn’t what we wanted and it wasn’t the game we love. But it was something, a glimpse of life beyond the threshold.
For everyone else, lockdown football was just that. Football only seen through the prism of the TV or, ever more distantly, heard on the radio. It wasn’t any kind of athletic life, all that.
But people forget, don’t they? Just a year ago, fans were allowed back to Wembley for the FA Cup final between Leicester and Chelsea. Attendance was capped at 20,000 but it felt like many thousands more.
The brutality of the attack should leave people in no doubt as to what Tuesday night’s pitch invasion entailed
That day felt like a reawakening for our sport. It felt like the first day of spring.
But here we are, 12 months later, contemplating an increase in hooliganism on our football pitches. Because that’s how pitch invasions with flares and attacks on stewards and footballers are to be classified. It’s not elation or celebration or unbridled joy. All of this can be experienced in the grandstand. No, that’s hooliganism.
Anyone in doubt should watch video of Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp being knocked out by a headbutt at the City Ground on Tuesday night after Nottingham Forest’s play-off win. Watch in slow motion if you want. See an athlete’s strong neck snap back suddenly and violently as their attacker strikes from their blind side. See how quickly his body falls to the ground. Yes, this is hooliganism at its roughest.
The Football League has again threatened empty stadiums if problems persist
There was only one attacker and he has been identified and is now being treated. But in Nottingham there were thousands on the field full-time. Our man wouldn’t have done what he did without the protection of the mob.
Each of them broke the law as soon as they entered the field. What gives them the right? What motivates you so soon after all this time wondering if football will ever really return as we once knew it?
Ahead of the final weekend of the Premier League season, our clubs will have watched Tuesday’s scenes with a sense of familiarity, but also with some trepidation.
The players’ union PFA has already called for “doing more” to protect its members on matchday. Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom said the same thing. But the stark truth is that while every club in the country is taking every possible measure to mitigate pitch invasions and disorder, they also know they remain terribly vulnerable to the simple and unpredictable whims of the masses.
Football during lockdown was not a way of life and people would be wise to avoid it again
For example, a major Premier League game may routinely involve 500 stewards. Those who work in key areas of stadiums have crowd control qualifications.
On some courses, a select few are specially trained to watch out for lone pitch invaders. These stewards have been known to wear football boots outfitted for the hunt. There are also police. Perhaps it doesn’t always seem like there’s enough at the stadiums, but the police bills aren’t insignificant – perhaps over £50,000 for a game.
At a game like this week’s in Forest, at full-time, cordons of stewards and cops are immediately thrown around two key areas – the away end and the tunnel and dugout. The cordon has apparently been breached on the City Ground.
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom said more needs to be done to protect players on the pitch
But with thousands determined to reach the field, it sometimes seems as if the battle will always be lost. It can also feel like this in clubs, where there are currently a particularly large number of children who are apparently running onto the lawn at the behest of their parents.
Nobody wants to go back to the times when spectators were fenced off. That cannot and will not happen. But without a barrier between spectators and the pitch, clubs will always depend, to varying degrees, on their supporters doing the right thing at all times.
As one Premier League manager said: “Without a battalion of Fusiliers stationed around the pitch, what chance do we have when 2,000 people decide to charge at once? That’s not complacency, that’s realism.”
It was a great season – but the sight of the fans on the pitch has returned to normal
This has been a great football season across the pyramid and more drama awaits. Cliffhanger football has returned to normal as of late, but apparently so has the sight of fans on the pitch with pyrotechnics in their hands.
Currently police checks only take place at turnstiles on most Premier League sites. Checking 50,000 sets of bags takes time.
But the public may want to consider their choices as we move forward. Two years ago – with Covid raging through Britain and all spectator sport suspended – we would have given a lot to have our freedoms returned. Now the talk of half-empty stadiums is back in the football lexicon.
After all we’ve been through, wouldn’t it just be easier for everyone to just stay in their seats and celebrate?