Sheffield United: Pitch invasions and the question people never seem to ask ... Why?

Okay, we know Robbie Biggs was bang out of order. Which is why, after assaulting Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp following last week’s Championship play-off semi-final, the Nottingham Forest fan has been banged up.

Thursday, 26th May 2022, 5:46 pm

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The same goes for the cowards who went for members of Swindon Town’s squad following their recent visit to Port Vale. Oh, and also the ones who attacked former United loanee Robin Olsen when Aston Villa travelled to Manchester City. Plus the pillock who thought it was a good idea to goad Patrick Viera after his Crystal Palace side had lost to Everton during another of the seemingly endless pitch invasions which seem to be occurring in English football.

Maybe I’m old fashioned and hopelessly out of touch. But when I was growing up, if I shouted obscenities in someone’s face for no good reason then I’d expect some comeback. Most probably in the form of a doughboy around the lughole or kick up the arse.

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Sheffield United's players arrive at the City Ground: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Times have clearly changed because now we seem to live in an era when many folk believe they can do exactly what they like, no matter how boorish or insulting, without taking responsibility for their actions. Reality TV has probably got a hell of a lot to answer for, thanks to all those fame hungry no-marks who tell the nation’s yoof ‘I’ll do exactly what I want, I don’t care what people think of me’ whilst desperately chasing votes from the watching audience.

The new fashion

Running onto the hallowed turf of your favourite stadium is now even more fashionable than, say, Fila or Sergio Tacchnini at the height of the casual explosion during the early and mid-Eighties. So clearly, now neither of those two labels are particularly desirable, fashions change. In a couple of years, when people have grown tired of dancing around in the centre circle to celebrate the half-time golden gamble result, something else will replace this bizarre phenomenon.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

But what we haven’t heard a lot about, in any of the predictable and lazy opinion pieces spawned by the shameful incidents at the top of this column, is why it is happening. Only when that question is answered can we begin devising solutions to what is clearly becoming a major problem.

Paul Heckingbottom, the United manager, has some pretty strong views on the subject. Ones he voiced immediately after Sharp was nutted by the idiot from Ilkeston and is probably likely to elaborate on when he sits down for a close season chat with journalists sometime next month. I don’t blame him either, because few of us would take kindly to being confronted, headbutted or abused at our “place of work”, as Heckingbottom likes to call the pitch.

But I am getting frustrated by the message, which Heckingbottom isn’t peddling but some people definitely are, that all fans are monsters or threats to society. Because they - we - aren’t. The attempts by some high profile figures over the past seven days or so to use events at the City Ground, Vale Park and the Etihad to promote their own draconian agendas is every bit as dangerous as Biggs’ actions were when, without any form of provocation, he launched himself at Sharp.

Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp was assaulted after the second leg by a Nottingham Forest fan

The big question

So why have pitch invasions, which by and large used to be viewed as expressions of joy, suddenly turned dark and in some cases violent? All sorts of theories have been put forward, from the effects of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic to a rise in the use of cocaine. I don’t know if any of these are factors, despite some sketchy evidence of the latter. I say sketchy because, a bit like coronaviruses, increased testing inevitably leads to a rise in the number of positive results. And that doesn’t necessarily correlate to an upturn in consumption.

My suspicion is that football needs to look inwards for the answer. And resist calls for even more barriers to be put up between players and the people who worship them. Even though that would be the easy and obvious thing to do.

Nottingham Forest fans invade the pitch following their Championship play-off semi-final against Sheffield United: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Football, as anyone who attended games four decades ago will tell you, has made plenty of progress when it comes to creating a welcoming environment for families and all members of the community.

Racism wasn’t the game’s problem in the bad old days. But, as events during the Spanish Civil War demonstrated, the crowds matches generate provide people with a safety blanket to espouse anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment views. Sometimes, in the case of those Catalonians fighting Franco, perfectly legitimate ones. This clearly wasn’t the case, however, when it came to Combat 18 or the National Front.

The theory

Unfortunately, moves to smarten up the sport’s image have spawned a product so sanitised that a germ would barely survive a millisecond if it could put on a pair of boots. And that, in my humble opinion, has led to many of those who follow it feeling totally divorced from the thing they love. The tifosi movement, the use of flares and explosion of demonstrations, is an attempt to reclaim ownership over something people are told by PR spivs they’re an integral part of when, because they’re not daft, they know the opposite is true. The actions of Biggs and his ilk simply prove some people can’t behave themselves. They don’t disprove this theory.

Short-term, steps will inevitably be taken to address this situation. They’ll probably include more rigid stewarding and crowd control measures.

But if people feel respected, they can usually self-police. Football will be doing itself and the people who play it a huge favour if it listens - really listens - to the concerns of supporters and act upon them.

Make sure they feel a part of the game. Because right now, they’re not.