A rambunctious Second City derby was the backdrop for a shocking incident on Saturday in which Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish was punched from behind by a Birmingham City pitch invader. The man who carried out the attack, 27-year-old Paul Mitchell, was bundled off the pitch amidst protestations from justifiably incensed players on both sides. He was subsequently arrested and charged with both illegal encroachment onto the pitch and assault.
Clearly, the gods of football were watching - it turns out they don’t take kindly to such cowardly and unprovoked acts of violence. Grealish went on to score the winner with a low drive, 20-minutes from time. He later, in conversation with Aston Villa’s media team, described it as “one of the best days my life”.
Happily, unless you’re a Blues fan, a healthy dose of poetic justice was served up at St. Andrew’s on Saturday. But the issue of fan-on-player violence is one which runs much deeper than this incident in isolation. Indeed, in the very same weekend, Chris Smalling was shoved by an Arsenal fan during United’s defeat at The Emirates and Rangers captain James Tavernier was aggressively confronted by a spectator as his side’s drew with Hibs.
There has been near-universal condemnation from players, pundits and fans alike in the wake of these events. Phil Neville amongst others has called for point deductions for clubs whose ‘supporters’ are involved in such troubling instances. Others have called for the matches of offending fan’s teams to be played behind closed doors or hefty fines to be dished out to them by the F.A.
However, while it is important for justice, not only be done, but also to be seen to be done, footballing punishments will not be enough to dissuade knuckle-dragging Neanderthals like Paul Mitchell from such senseless acts of violence. For this shameful minority, the football is entirely secondary; an excuse for a scrap and a stage for them to express their painfully fragile masculinity with relative disregard for the score at the full-time whistle.
The root causes of violence in society are myriad and complex, far too big a problem to be tackled solely by the F.A. But what the governing body and club administrations do have a duty to do is recognise and address the empirical signposts of individuals who pose a risk to the safety of their players.
Social media, as with so many other problems in society, is the obvious starting point. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have the potential to mend the much-eroded fan-player relationship but often have a polarising effect, instead being used as a platform to spread reactionary and hate-fuelled vitriol.
Most players will tell you they don’t mind the abuse they get from fans, so long as it stops at the stadium gates. Sadly however, while abusing players in their day-to-day lives is not a new phenomenon, social media has given certain groups a platform to do so and, crucially, on a much larger scale.
There should be a zero-tolerance approach from clubs towards fans who explicitly threaten players via this or any other medium. Just as the game moved past the dark days of recurrent violence and racism in the 80s with modern policing techniques and improved technologies (CCTV, electronic ticketing etc), so the sport needs to adapt to these modern and increasingly pervasive threats to its honour.
For many, going to the football is a release; a place where it’s socially acceptable for even the most mild-mannered of individuals to go red in the face with rage and express their repressed tribalism. Unfortunately, there is some who seem incapable of recognising the not-so-fine line between passionate exuberance and outright anti-social, even criminal behaviour. Hopefully, in light of recent events, more will be done in the coming weeks and months to curb this embarrassing renaissance in archaic football violence.