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Pitch invaders should not face imprisonment

I was sitting there at Sunday lunchtime having a cup of tea (Assam tea, little splash of milk) with the Birmingham v Aston Villa game on in the back ground. I was not really takingnotice when it happened. A fan ran on the pitch and punched Jack Grealish.

It was shocking.

Like many others, I like a drink before the game and get myself well up for the North London Derby. Adrenaline is running, you are on edge. Anything could happen. But running on the pitch and punching a player – that is simply idiotic behaviour.

A few hours later, when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored his penalty, an Arsenal fan ran on the pitch and pushed Chris Smalling before attempting to join the Arsenal celebrations.

Now I do not know whether this fans had watched the Birmingham v Aston Vila game prior, and was inspired by what he saw, but it was another silly act.

These two incidents were on the back of a Hibernian fan attacking Rangers’ James Tavernier on Friday night.

Three incidents in the space of 3 days.

The authorities will come down hard in all 3 cases, using the full of weight of the law to prosecute and punish.

On Sky Sports, they talked about making “entering the field of play” a criminal offence. It already is.

Under the Football (Offences) Act 1991 it is an offence for a person at a designated football match to go onto the playing area, or any area adjacent to the playing area to which spectators are not generally admitted, without lawful authority or lawful excuse (which shall be for him to prove).

As it stands, the criminal punishment for entering the field of play is a fine. A court will also likely hand out a 3 year Football Banning Order (FBO) if it is a first offence. This banning order can increase to a life time banning order depending severity of offence and previous offences.

Clubs also have the civil power of banning fans from the ground in the same way a pub can ban a punter. It is private land. They can choose to ban however they want for however long they like.

In the case of the Birmingham fan, he will probably receive a life ban. It is not just that he ran onto the pitch, but he also assaulted Grealish.

He will be prosecuted under the Football (Offences) Act for entering the field of play but also likely to be prosecuted for common assault Criminal Justice Act 1988. This could lead to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months. (Note: he was given 14 weeks).

The CPS who probably also try and add Actual bodily Harm (ABH) in as this carries a sentence up to 5 years. However as there has been no bodily harm, this will probably fail and he will be convicted of common assault (note: he plead guilty to common assault).

In the cases of the Arsenal and Hibs fans, they will be fined and banned. Probably for 3 years by the courts and longer by the clubs.

All for 30 seconds of fame.

Pitch invasions are not a new thing.

For years in the League Cup Arsenal have suffered from silly children running on the pitch, and recently a YouTube channel decided to invade a Tottenham European tie. Whilst these are harmless acts, all would have been arrested and prosecuted.

The concern for the authorities is 3 incidents live on Sky over 3 days have shamed the English game.

They have a brand to protect, and will ensure that all those involved will be prosecuted to the full extent.

My concern is that the law makers go OTT.

Like with the Dangerous Dogs Act, governments throughout history have responded disproportionally to a minority of offences as they gained public interest. This results in them quickly passing legislation without thinking of the greater impact.

If they add imprisonment to the punishment for those fans that enter the field of play, it could have far reaching consequences.

Yes, the Birmingham fan deserves jail time as he assaulted a player. No one should fear being assaulted when at work – or any other time.

But if they role out imprisonment for all pitch invaders, this could be misused.

There was an incident a few years ago during an Arsenal v Manchester United game that highlights this.

“When Manchester United were away to Arsenal last season,” says Amanda Jacks from the Football Supporters Federation, “Rooney scored a winner and about half a dozen fans went tumbling over the barriers as the crowd surged forward. Clearly they weren’t trying to run on the pitch, it was just the momentum that carried them over. They all got arrested and charged with pitch encroachment. One pleaded guilty, the others pleaded not guilty, but the magistrates were pretty disparaging that the case had been brought at all.”

You could be completely innocent and be punished over a barrier, or simply be caught up in celebrating a goal, and end up with 6 months in jail.

Jumping on the pitch is not the equivalent of assault; so should not have the same maximum punishment.

The UK has a huge knife problem at the moment.

Sentencing guidelines indicate courts must impose a mandatory six month minimum prison term on those caught carrying a knife for a second time.

So you could be caught carrying a knife twice before being handed a 6 months sentence (and only in 63% of cases have people been sentenced to 6 months for their 2nd offence), or you could be jailed for 6 months for entering the field of play once whilst celebrating a goal.

It clearly is not a proportionate offence and the law makers need to think carefully before adding imprisonment to the list of possible punishments.

The bigger concern for me as a fan is that these fans behaviour supports those who do not want to see a return of Safe Standing. It supports the law which bans drinking in view of the pitch at football. And it supports kick offs at noon for big games.

Next season when Birmingham play Aston Villa it will be at 11:30am.

Fans will moan, they will complain, blame the police, the TV companies. The real person to blame is the chap who ran on the pitch and assaulted Grealish.

The actions of a single fan have consequences for every single other fan that go’s.

I do not want early kick offs for “security reasons”. I want to be able to stand and watch the game. Have a beer. But whilst people continue to misbehave.

Those who ran onto the pitch over the weekend will face proportionate consequences. My fear is that we will see a disproportionate response from the law makers and the consequences for the majority of fans could be greater.

Think before you run on the pitch.

Keenos

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