By Jonathan Copping, Lawyer, Stone King, London, United Kingdom
The 2021-2022 football season concluded at the end of May, following the finals of the play-offs and cup competitions. Whilst the actual finals appeared to pass without incident, save for the Champions League final, which involved fans being tear gassed and pepper sprayed by police and attacked by locals, the matches leading up to the finals, in particular play-off matches, witnessed a number of pitch invasions and irresponsible behaviour.
It should be noted that pitch invasions are not a new event. Every season, supporters of clubs clamber over advertising boards to celebrate promotion, avoiding relegation or simply the fact that they have endured another season following their team.
However, this season, a number of unsavoury events have occurred during pitch invasions. After Everton’s win against Crystal Palace, a result that saw Everton retain its position in the Premier League, a pitch invasion ensued, leading to Crystal Palace manager, Patrick Vieira, being involved in a confrontation with an Everton supporter.
Following the second leg of the Championship play-off final between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United, which ended in Nottingham Forest being victorious, Sheffield United striker, Billy Sharp, was assaulted after a football supporter, Robert Biggs, headbutted him, leaving Sharp requiring stitches. On a review of the video footage, it is clear that Biggs had targeted Sharp (who was standing by the pitch watching the pitch invasion). Biggs subsequently pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm and was sentenced to 24 weeks’ imprisonment, as well as receiving a 10-year football banning order, and was also banned by Nottingham Forest for life.
Following Biggs’ hearing, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated that it was working with footballing bodies to explain what evidence was required to charge offenders in order to protect players.
Douglas Mackay, of the CPS was quoted as stating:
"Over recent years and months there has been a significant rise in football-related criminality compared to pre-pandemic levels.
"There is no place for violent criminal acts in football, and incidents such as these have a significant impact on victims."
Violence and irresponsible behaviour have not just been limited to pitch invasions. Since supporters have been allowed back into stadiums following the gradual easing of the Covid-19 restrictions, and as stated by Mackay, quote above, there has been a significant rise in football-related criminality compared to pre-pandemic levels. England men’s team manager, Gareth Southgate, commented on the issue last month, during a press conference, as follows:
“There is clearly a responsibility within football because, when it is in our environment, we have to do all we can to make sure it doesn't happen.
"But it's a wider problem and it is behaviour. It's a reflection of where we are as a country at the moment.
"It's a difficult time for people. We are going to have more difficult times because of the economy and the situation we are in, but we have to look at what we are doing in terms of parenting and how we want to be viewed as a country."
Whilst the footballing authorities can take steps to prevent pitch invasions and, to a lesser extent, football related disorder (much of it occurring away from football grounds in town centres but taking place due to a football match happening), by threatening stadium closures, points deductions or fines and clubs can issue banning orders, there is uncertainty as to whether such actions would be effective in controlling football related criminality. This does not mean that footballing authorities or clubs should not take action with a view to preventing criminal acts at football matches.
However, as saliently pointed out by Gareth Southgate, it is a wider problem and it is a reflection of where we are as a country at the moment. Wider societal issues are at play and need to be addressed in order for there to be any effective prevention of football related criminality.