Originally featured on You Are My Arsenal
After Aston Villa’s progress to the F.A Cup Semi-Final and a much needed trip to Wembley for the success-starved supporters – the articles weren’t revolving around a second win for Tim Sherwood’s men over the Baggies in a week. They were concentrated on the pitch invasion which followed the final whistle.
The reaction from the majority – media experts and fans alike – was a damning verdict on not only the fans from both teams, but on the distinct lack of numbers needed to stem a tide of emotionally charged supporters.
The lions share of the mass were clad in the claret and blue of the Aston Villa jersey. Seeing as a precursor of the pitch invasion occurred during the match, stewards and police lined up and formed a barricade until the final whistle peeped from the referee. As soon as the high-pitched noise emanated from the match official, the poorly formed barrier was as porous as West Brom’s defence had been.
Masses of fans followed the first few onto the pitch and the tide of fans grew.
Most of the players managed to escape down to the tunnel before being swamped, but from the plethora of images that followed, what really struck home was players such as Fabian Delph being manhandled and having items of his kit being taken from him whilst he was still wearing it!
Fabian Delph’s post-match interview was full of mirth – a win over their local rivals masking what was clearly a frightening episode. The most startling of points raised was that there were still West Brom players on the pitch when all hell broke loose. Whilst no fracas was evident, the possibility of a horror story that would bring harsher ramifications was all too real.
The reaction to the free-for-all at Villa Park on social media was a mixed bag. It made interesting reading as valid points were raised on both sides of the fence. Has football been bleached of all fan involvement? Have the players been put on pedestals so high that when fans genuinely interact with them, it seems wholly alien? Seeing the players with fans arms draped around their neck or supporters clasping players faces as if their head were adorned in precious jewels seemed to raise panic more than affectionate nostalgia of hazy days in the past. A time when players used to mix in the same social circles as the fans who so clearly adored them.
Was it so wrong for the fans to celebrate in such a way?
Aston Villa supporters have had little to no cheer over the last few seasons. Staving off the threat of relegation and seeing a fine line of youth players being bloodied is about as much as you can find that would put a smile on a Villan’s face. So an impending trip to Wembley must have felt more euphoric than for most fans.
Objectively though, shouldn’t pitch invasions be restricted to final day relegation-escaping acts and trophy-lifting? Does winning a Quarter-Final – no matter how dour recent seasons have been – constitute a good enough reason for a mass-party on the pitch?
Ultimately, safety is now paramount. The sight of players being ushered to the tunnel by vastly outnumbered stewards and the unluckier players being swamped by eager invaders is a sight that will no doubt bring a hefty punishment to Aston Villa.
Stewards at all stadia in England get an awful reputation as stories filter through regarding being made to leave the stadium for repeated standing and other frivolous rule-bending. Seeing the stewards so clearly out of their depth at Villa Park was the other end of the spectrum. It is easy to criticise the people who wear the high-viz clothing but it is the instructions that are given to them that provide the backlash and critique. Reforms of safety rules and how stewards are implemented are now paramount and have been for quite some time but the aftermath of the pitch-onslaught will hopefully speed things up.
Stewards may give off an air of the kid who was bullied at school and is now drunk on the sliver of power they now wield, but the reason they are there is mandatory. The more they escort fans out for standing and singing, the more vitriolic the abuse they receive. Think about the times when you have attended a game and a troublesome fan is nearby. Who do we look to when there is a chance of mischief?
All fans would dearly love to get closer to the players who perform for their club. A book signing, a club event day, winning a competition. With the money now pumped intravenously into football, it is imperative that these types of event continue. Fans of any club want success more than players, managers and heirarchy. They are the essence of a club. Without club contact and opportunities to mix with the men they watch every week, the game becomes akin to going to the theatre or cinema.
It still doesn’t justify what occurred at Villa Park though. There are mitigating circumstances – it was a derby, Villa fans have been under the cosh for season after season and the win brought with it a trip to Wembley – but when players and staff are at risk then that is when punishments must be introduced and rules must be investigated. If not, the next time this happens, the end product might be a little more savoury.
If you ever think that this should be acceptable and leniency should be exercised – just put yourself in the boots of one of the West Brom players as thousands of Villa fans from all angles swamp you. It’s a frightening thought.