'Best day of my life' - Jack Grealish on going from getting punched by Birmingham fan to netting derby-winning goal
Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish celebrated the 'best day of his life' after he recovered from being punched by a pitch invader to score the derby winner at Birmingham.
The 23-year-old was struck on the side of the head by a spectator in a flat cap who ran on to the field less than 10 minutes into the match before throwing a punch from behind the midfielder as he stood in the Birmingham penalty area.
The intruder, who Blues later confirmed would be banned for life from St Andrew's, was quickly restrained by stewards as several other Villa players rushed in to confront him. He was led away by police, blowing kisses to the crowd as he left.
West Midlands police confirmed a man was arrested following the incident.
Grealish thankfully appeared unhurt and was comforted by team-mates and opponents. He went on to net the only goal with a low, angled shot in the second half, leaping jubilantly in to the Villa supporters to celebrate and earning himself a yellow card.
He told Sky Sports Football: "Best day of my life. To come here, captain Aston Villa and score the winner is what dreams are made of, especially for me as a Villa fan."
Regarding the incident with the spectator, he added: "I was just unaware at the time, I was walking into position and then just felt a whack around the side of the face.
"Obviously there's rivalry and stuff in football, but I don't think there's any place for that really.
"I just tried to get on with my job. To score the winner was unbelievable. After what happened in the first half I think it was set up for it."
His team-mate Conor Hourihane branded the attack "absolutely disgusting," adding: "Full credit to (Grealish), he showed his class, got the winner and had the last laugh and it's a fantastic three points for us."
It was only Grealish's second game back from a long-term injury - he marked his return last week by scoring a stunning volley against Derby, while he also scored in November's 4-2 win over Blues at Villa Park.
Villa said they were "appalled" by the "disgraceful attack" and called on the culprit to feel "the full force of the law".
A club statement read: "A red line has been crossed by this cowardly on-field assault on a player, which is unprecedented in English football.
"We trust the perpetrator will feel the full force of the law and the authorities investigate the circumstances surrounding today's deplorable incident.
"Local rivalries are part of the fabric of the game. However, as we are sure our friends at Birmingham City would agree, to have a player's personal safety placed under such jeopardy is a serious cause for concern for the entire football community."
Birmingham apologised to Grealish and their rivals and said they would undertake a review of their safety procedures.
A statement read: "We deplore the behaviour of the individual who committed this act and rest assured he will be banned from St Andrew's for life. The club will also support any further punishment this individual may face in the eyes of the law.
"The club will be working with the relevant authorities to investigate all the circumstances and we will be reviewing our stadium safety procedures.
"What happened has no place in football or society. Jack is a Birmingham lad and regardless of club allegiance should not have been subjected to this - there are no excuses.
"Again, we apologise to Jack and all at Aston Villa Football Club."
The English Football League also condemned "the mindless actions of the individual" involved and pledged to work with the Football Association "to address the issue of player and match officials' safety on the pitch and ensure the appropriate action is taken."
The Football Association added it "condemned" the incident and would be working to "ensure the appropriate action is taken".
There also appeared to be angry clashes between fans before the game at St Andrew's.
The attack on Grealish followed a number of recent high-profile incidents of crowd trouble in Scottish football.
In Friday night's 1-1 draw between Rangers and Hibernian at Easter Road, Gers captain James Tavernier found himself face to face with a fan who had jumped out of the home support before being led away. Police later confirmed a 21-year-old man had been arrested.
That incident came six days after a glass bottle was thrown from the same section of the stadium as Celtic's Scott Sinclair prepared to take a corner in a William Hill Scottish Cup game and on top of a series of missile-throwing incidents this season.