In August 2013, the International Business Times website published an article with the headline: ‘EXCLUSIVE: New Hooligan Fears as FA Allows Pitch Invasions to go Unpunished.’
Accompanied by a photograph of an anonymous supporter looking vaguely jubilant as he’s carried off by four stewards, it went on to explain that ‘the Football Association will not issue immediate punishments to clubs whose fans invade the pitch, despite the ugly scenes following Preston North End’s win over Blackpool in the League Cup this week’ and described in horrified tones the potential consequences if action wasn’t taken to stop fans getting onto the sacred ground of the clubs they support, explicitly linking it with what it described as ‘hooliganism.’
A representative of the FA explained quite reasonably that the context of a pitch invasion was taken into account when deciding whether to punish clubs or not, and end-of-season celebrations that spilled over onto the field of play were tolerated if the club were not deemed to have been negligent.
The determination of football clubs not to risk that is presumably why, on the occasion of the last home game of each season, an eye-sizzling stream of DayGlo-clad stewards snakes its way around the ground and pitches camp in front of the advertising boards about 20 minutes before the referee decides to call it a day. It would be an athletic and dedicated pitch invader who launched themselves missile-like at that particular cordon orange, although I’ll be honest with you and admit that more than a decade of mid-table mediocrity and worse has put the damper on any idea of an assault on the hallowed Portman Road turf on my part. And also, until recently, the possibility of incurring the wrath of groundsman extraordinaire, Alan Ferguson who left us for St. George’s Park in 2011, was off-putting to say the least.
I’ve never been involved in a pitch invasion. For complicated reasons, I missed the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Bolton Wanderers in 2000, brilliantly described here by Gavin Barber. I think that was the last full-scale pitch invasion at Portman Road. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to encourage anyone to break the law. As the Football Supporters’ Federation will tell you, pitch invasions are illegal and you might end up with a criminal record and a three-year banning order. It can also potentially cost your club a lot of money as the FA could decide that they’ve been negligent and fine them. So don’t do it.
The violence that was associated with some football supporters in the 1970s and 80s was serious. As a small child and later as a teenager, I was caught up on several occasions in some very nasty stuff involving Wolves, Stoke City, Spurs and Arsenal fans and it was, frankly, terrifying. It’s just, as with racism and homophobia, the media and forces of law and order appear to think that such behaviour is the exclusive province of football fan whereas it seems to me that all these things are a part, a regrettable part, of our society and the fact that they exist in the context of football is only because a football crowd is made up of people who reflect that society with all its positive attributes (such as fundraising for charity) but also all its faults.
When I was researching the history of my club recently I came across dozens of photographs of pitch invasions. There’s even one on the cover of Terry Hunt’s book of photographs, Ipswich Town FC (Breedon, 2009). The occasion was when Town were promoted back to the First Division in 1968. It doesn’t look so much like the Viking hordes storming up an east coast beach as a rather friendly bunch of teenagers who want to express their joy. Someone (I think it’s the notorious ‘Swede’) has his arm around Ray Crawford, but Ray doesn’t seem to mind. I’ve even seen a 1950s photograph somewhere of a pitch invasion at Portman Road involving several bespectacled youths wearing duffle coats. It’s difficult to imagine someone in a duffle coat being anything other than benign somehow.
Perhaps I’m being naïve. I know that pitch invasions can turn into riots, that people can be – and have been – hurt. Ipswich fans still remember the appalling behaviour of Millwall supporters in the past and, more recently, the experience of our fans at Elland Road in 2007 when we all but sent Leeds United down to the third tier. It was a minority of Leeds fans who ran on to the pitch that day but our supporters remember that some of their vitriol was directed towards people with disabilities.
This conflation of violence and antisocial behaviour with its context only occurs in football, it seems to me, yet violence and boorishness happen at other events without everyone who attends them being part of the problem. There was a good example of how football supporters are treated differently to almost any other group recently when the MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, posted a photograph on Twitter of a great deal of litter in the Piazza at Covent Garden the night after the League Cup final between Sunderland and Manchester City with the words ‘Went to London for dinner. Wish I hadn’t. Scumbag football hooligans turn Covent Garden into a disgusting Cesspit (sic).’ In reply, it was pointed out that similar messes had been left by crowds leaving the Royal Opera House, and on the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and at New Year. None of these people have been described as ‘hooligans.’ Let’s not even mention the Bullingdon Club.
I’m really not trying to defend violent behaviour but asking for a distinction to be made between different kinds of incursions onto football pitches. Even the language that’s used takes sides. Fans ‘spilling onto’ or ‘running onto’ the pitch don’t sound as threatening as those who are ‘invading.’ There are laws that deal with criminal behaviour such as violence. Whether that behaviour is conducted in a football stadium, a nightclub or on social networking shouldn’t make an iota of difference.
There’s an old saying, ‘pass a law, create a crime.’ Because going onto a football pitch is illegal for fans, it can, as we’ve seen, bring you a criminal record even if your intention is nothing more heinous than to hug the striker who just took you into the Premier League. I would suggest that allowing supporters access to their football field and their players would be good for the spirit of football. By controlling the manner in which supporters are allowed to celebrate, the authorities are quite literally acting as killjoys. Preventing supporters being on the pitch on special occasions is one more way that football fans are being separated from their clubs, literally in this case. Our role is to pay up, sit down and passively accept the increasingly passionless commodity that’s being offered to us.
Going by what’s happened to Ipswich Town over the last decade or so, it may be a long time until I’m able to take part in my first pitch invasion, but I can dream. I may have to have the help of a Zimmer frame by then, but I’ll be there.