With the conclusion of the English football season, emotions always seem to run high. The fear of relegation or the thrill of a promotion or even a championship tend to do that to football fans. After the final whistle it is not rare for fans to spill out of the stands onto the pitch to celebrate together with the players. Normally everything remains harmless and fans and players get to enjoy the moment together. This year however there is an alarming rate of supporters being aggressive towards opposition players, putting them in hazardous situations as they are trying to get off the pitch.
As Manchester City fans poured out of the stands to celebrate winning the title after coming back from 2-0 down, Aston Villa players were trying to make their way towards the tunnel. Villa’s goalkeeper, Robin Olsen, was jogging back along with a steward as a City fan attacked him on the back of his head. Luckily, Olsen was fine afterwards. This incident however was not the first this month: a week earlier Sheffield United player Billy Sharp was blindsided by a headbutt from a Nottingham Forest fan. Sharp then had to go to the hospital to get stitches.
Another incident happened as Everton fans entered the pitch celebrating after avoiding relegation with a comeback win against Crystal Palace. Crystal Palace’s Joachim Andersen then was attacked by fans as he tried to get off the pitch. Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira was also approached and taunted by the Everton fans, resulting in him kicking one of the supporters. There were also two other incidents that week where fans verbally and physically abused players in the play-offs for promotion in League Two, England’s fourth tier of professional football.
After a period where no fans were allowed into the stadiums, it had been quite some time without pitch invasions. It seems however that since supporters started doing it again, it has led to a sort of ripple effect, leading to multiple occurrences with aggressive supporters. Solving the problem therefore seems to be a high priority ahead of next season. So far, the damage has been relatively limited, with no severe injuries to any of the players yet. Nonetheless, something has to been done about this before it becomes truly dangerous for players.
Preventing fans from entering the pitch after the final whistle is not so straightforward. Simply increasing the number of police officers or stewards at a game is not possible: there aren’t always enough officers available and the cost would be significant as well. Meanwhile, stewards are often not trained well enough since it is only a part-time job. Even with a larger amount of police or stewards present, it might not even be enough to stop fans when they are storming the pitch with such a sheer amount of people. Putting fences between the supporters and the pitch is absolutely not an option after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, which lead to 97 deaths and 766 injuries. One final solution would be to punish the clubs by deducting points from them or letting them play matches behind closed doors. It is not clear how effective this would be and deducting points will also damage the sporting integrity of the league.
With the last two matches of the English football calendar being played this weekend, there should be enough time over the summer to decide what kind of measures need to be taken. The question remains how effective they will be. Most pitch invasions tend to happen in May, when the season comes to a close, so only then will we probably see the results. Hopefully next year in May the end of the season celebrations will go better as a result of the measures that have been taken.