The art of a good pitch invasion

The hysterical response to fans rushing the pitch shows how sanitised football has become.

Duleep Allirajah

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Flares are back. Or so the fashionistas tell us. So, too, it seems, is that other much-maligned 1970s trend, the pitch invasion. Two incursions – at Reading and Aston Villa – in the space of a week have led some commentators to ask whether the bad old days of terrace hooliganism are back. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Although the sight of football fans pouring on to the pitch rekindles the elite’s fear of the mob, these were not scenes of disorder, but of celebration.

Let’s look at the incidents in turn. There were two separate incursions at Villa Park – one towards the end of the game and another at the final whistle. The pitch invasions were described as ‘ugly scenes’ in true outrage-by-numbers fashion by both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. ‘It’s disgraceful. We don’t want to see those scenes’, said Tony Pulis, whose West Brom team were defeated by Villa. ‘It puts players in danger and you don’t want to see that. You would see that in the 1970s and 80s and you don’t want to see that again.’

In reality, neither invasion had any violent or malicious intent. No punches were thrown. Nobody got hurt. The Villa fans, for so long starved of football glory, were simply celebrating the fact that they were going to Wembley. That’s right. It was pure jubilation. Fabian Delph couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether the pitch invasion was good or bad. ‘It was dangerous’, said the Villa midfielder. ‘Someone tried to take my boot off. People tried to kiss me and were biting me. It was scary.’ So, the only casualty of the night was the result of a badly executed kiss.

There were similar scenes at this week’s FA Cup quarter-final between Reading and Bradford City. Firstly, while the game was still in progress, a half-naked man ran on to the pitch. Did he kick the referee? No. Did he attack any players? No. Instead, he performed a series of forward-flips, much to the amusement of the crowd who chanted ‘Olé’ and applauded as he was hauled away by stewards. At the final whistle there was a second mass pitch invasion by exuberant Reading fans. A smoke bomb was let off, but, like the events at Villa Park, this wasn’t a riot, it was mass celebration.

Technically, all those fans who ran on to the pitch at Villa Park and the Madejski Stadium could face prosecution. The law doesn’t distinguish between good and bad pitch invasions. Under the provisions of the Football Offences Act 1991, it is a crime to ‘go on to the playing area’. It matters not whether you intend to dance or fight, running on to the pitch can earn you a criminal record and a banning order. The criminalisation of all pitch invaders is a legacy of the 1980s, a product of the establishment’s congenital fear of the mob. Football fans were regarded as a riot waiting to happen and, consequently, any kind of incursion was regarded as a mortal threat to the social fabric.

I think it’s time we did away with this simplistic view that every pitch invasion is a Bad Thing. A cursory glance at history shows that pitch invasions can be for the public good. Admittedly it was a work of fiction, but the denouement of Escape To Victory featured a textbook Good Pitch Invasion. The Parisian crowd swarmed on to the pitch, enabling Sly Stallone and his team of football immortals (Pele, Ardiles, Moore and, er, Russell Osman) to escape from the Nazis. What’s not to like?

The most iconic football commentary ever wouldn’t have happened without a pitch invasion. ‘Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over’, yelled a breathless Kenneth Wolstenholme. Note that he didn’t say: ‘Some people are on the pitch. Disgraceful. Bring back the birch.’ The pitch invaders, to my knowledge, weren’t demonised. England were about to win the World Cup. Why wouldn’t you run on to the pitch? The only wonder was that so few spectators leapt over the perimeter fence.

My favourite pitch invasion, and one that I witnessed, was at Selhurst Park in 1979 when Crystal Palace beat Burnley 2-0 to win promotion to the old First Division. It seemed like half the population of south London was on the pitch that evening. And quite rightly so. There were similar chaotic scenes at Selhurst Park when Palace beat Blackburn Rovers to secure promotion to the top flight in 1989. In my view, both of these pitch invasions were unquestionably virtuous.

Of course, not all pitch invasions are good natured. Riot police were deployed to quell fighting on the pitch between fans of Bristol City and Bristol Rovers when the two clubs met in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy last season. So, there are good and bad pitch invasions. And some that are borderline. I’m not sure I approve of the three Trollstation pranksters who ran on to the pitch during a Europa Cup game at White Hart Lane earlier this season. No one was harmed, but pitch invasion purists will be appalled at the hijacking of what ought to be a spontaneous and joyously anarchic act by professional self-publicists.

So how do we distinguish between good and bad pitch invasions? To my knowledge, the ethics of pitch invasions isn’t a question which has troubled the minds of the great moral philosophers. Until now. It’s time for the FA to set up a dubious pitch invasions committee. Bring in Alasdair MacIntyre and Mary Warnock to decide whether an incursion was good or bad. There’s a serious point here. It’s time to stop criminalising every fan who runs on to the pitch and start applying some common sense. A society which can’t distinguish between merrymaking and malevolence really has lost its moral compass.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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