Sunday 1 March 2015

With fan violence and verbal abuse rife – is the English game in meltdown?

Paul Hayward

Published 11/12/2012 | 05:00

A steward comes to assist as Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart (left) holds back a angry fan during the Barclays Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. Photo: PA
A steward comes to assist as Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart (left) holds back a angry fan during the Barclays Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. Photo: PA

Waking to find himself the new public enemy No 1 in football, 21-year-old Matthew Stott did what any self-respecting pitch invader would do and instructed his solicitor to issue a statement apologising for his encroachment in the Manchester derby.

Stott was the chap in the sky blue hat who tried to confront United's Rio Ferdinand but was stopped by City goalkeeper, Joe Hart. In a cry of self-abasement and remorse Stott told the world: "I intend to write personally to Mr Ferdinand to express my extreme regret and apologies and also apologise to Manchester United and their fans. I would like to thank Joe Hart for his actions when I came on the pitch."

Football is now in such a state of fury and ferment that misbehaving fans are now copying the PR moves of celebrities. But if Stott, who has been charged with pitch encroachment, was widely mocked by supporters on both sides, the chaos he helped to generate at the Etihad Stadium was by no means an isolated case of obnoxious conduct.

What we need now, you feel, is a mass rejection by supporters groups of the kind of behaviour so many feel appalled by: backed up not with firefighting against individuals but collective punishments of clubs and groups of supporters, including points deductions and the playing of games behind closed doors, if warnings are ignored. We can no longer go on like this.


The uproar is coming so thick and fast the news cycle barely has time to dwell on each incidence of racist abuse, vile chanting, Twitter meltdown or threatening behaviour on the streets.

Take pitch invasions, in isolation. Stott's "moment of madness" was not the first this season. In October, 21-year-old Leeds fan Aaron Cawley was jailed for 16 weeks for attacking Sheffield Wednesday 'keeper Chris Kirkland.

As the fall-out from Sunday spread, Gordon Taylor, chairman of the PFA, spoke of the need for "netting" behind the goals and around corner flags, where Wayne Rooney was also pelted with objects at the weekend. But Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, opposed the use of mesh to protect players.

"Netting is not something we feel is necessary to have," he said.

"No-one condones the throwing of missiles, but arrests last season were 24pc down on previous seasons and not many social phenomena alter that much. It is undoubtedly improving and before we start making knee-jerk reactions to particular incidents we ought to bear that in mind."

Moral panic is easy to diagnose and not hard to exaggerate. This season, though, only the most myopic lover of the sport would deny that the national game is spinning out of control. Even as Stott was crafting his apology with his solicitor (he is "hard working" with a girlfriend of five years), Paul Lambert was discussing the abuse he expects to receive when taking his Aston Villa side to his old club Norwich tonight.

On Saturday, a 23-year-old Swansea man was released on conditional bail after being questioned about the alleged racial abuse of Norwich's black defender Sebastien Bassong at the Liberty Stadium in South Wales. This incident flashed by on the bulletins until it emerged yesterday that Norwich have reported four incidences of racial abuse aimed at Bassong to the police.

Attention turned the next day to the mayhem in Manchester, where a flare was thrown on the pitch, Rio Ferdinand sustained a cut to the eye from one of many coins thrown and police charged nine spectators, from 13 arrests, as groups of fans tried to ambush each other on the way back into town.

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