Football: Player safety again in the spotlight!

By Jonathan Copping, Lawyer, Stone King, London, UK

Calls have been made to improve player safety, following the assault carried out by a football spectator, who ran on the pitch during the recent match between Aston Villa and Birmingham City and punched Aston Villa midfielder, Jack Grealish.

The spectator in question was jailed by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court for 14 weeks this week after pleading guilty to assault and illegally entering the field of play. He also received a ten-year football banning order from entering all stadiums.

However, the main focus, following this assault, has been to look at the steps that can be taken to improve player safety.

Aston Villa issued a statement in relation to the Grealish attack as follows:

Aston Villa football club is appalled by the disgraceful attack on Jack Grealish during today’s game. 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”

Although the frequency of pitch invaders at football matches has diminished in recent years, in the past few weeks there has been a number of such incidents.

In addition to the Grealish attack, a spectator entered the pitch during the Manchester United and Arsenal match, which took place on the same day, and shoved Manchester United defender, Chris Smalling.

Prior to these incidents, Glasgow Rangers captain, James Tavernier, was confronted on the pitch by a fan of Hibernian and a coin was thrown at Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal from a Celtic spectator.

The Football Association of England and Wales will undertake an investigation into the assault on Jack Grealish and Birmingham City will inevitably be charged and fined for failing to control its supporters.

The recent incidents have certainly cast a shadow over English and Scottish football. It is more common in England and Scotland for the spectators to be much closer to the pitch than it is, in say, Italy, where the spectators are often behind metal fences or at the other side of running tracks which surround the pitch.

There would be substantial resistance to erecting fences to separate spectators from the pitch, which have the effect of creating a hostile atmosphere in stadiums.

It is to be hoped, that following an investigation by The Football Association, recommendations can be made and implemented, in order to improve player safety and minimise the risk of incidents, such as the Grealish attack, ever happening again and tarnishing the ‘beautiful game’!

Jonathan Copping may be contacted by e-mail at ‘JonathanCopping@stoneking.co.uk’