TIME FOR CHANGE: Player safety in football…

We saw an eventful footballing weekend not long ago but not for all the right reasons with ‘fan’ related incidents in both Championship and Premier league matches.

Early on in the Birmingham City versus Aston Villa derby, a fan was able to run beyond the line of stewards and punch Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish in the face. Then, just hours later, another fan invaded the pitch and pushed Manchester United’s Chris Smalling.

The question is, who’s to blame for these acts of anti-social behaviour and what can be done to ensure the safety of players? Following several now infamous incidents in the 70’s and 80’s, football clubs were forced to erect fences around pitches which obviously would have stopped these assaults from occurring.

The disaster at Hillsborough saw this decision reversed and since, we have seen very few issues in this country. The Hillsborough disaster makes it very difficult for anyone to recommend the re-introduction of fences and few would want to but without them the possibility of serious assaults on footballers and officials are heightened. There have been many opinions expressed since the incidents apportioning blame but ultimately you’ve got to question how a Birmingham City ‘fan’ was able to get on the pitch and only be challenged after assaulting Grealish.

While the Second City Derby act of stupidity is rare in today’s game (which is why it was so shocking) the football authorities and football clubs have to realise that it takes only one incident to result in a far more tragic outcome and potentially a footballer losing their life on a British football pitch (and as we saw, it may well be televised).

Nothing was stopping the attacker, who has since been named as Paul Mitchell, from carrying and using a knife or other weapon. Earlier this season, it emerged that a Manchester United supporter who ran on to the Old Trafford pitch to hug Cristiano Ronaldo, when Juventus visited in the Champions League, had toy guns in his rucksack.

In my view, who is to blame is irrelevant. With terrorists always looking for opportunities to shock and enough examples of people with severe mental issues committing serious assaults, attention needs to be urgently focused on security.

With the billions of pounds in our game there can be no excuse for not acting. Any football fan who regularly attends matches will know that security at the turnstiles is far less aggressive than at large music concerts or other heavily attended events.

This has to change and quickly. In 1993, tennis star Monica Seles was stabbed by a spectator during a quarter final match and only after was security increased at tennis events, anyone who attends Wimbledon will know that body and bag searches are conducted on every spectator.

Too often football has been slow in making decisions relating to fan and player safety and only after disaster have they acted.

Now no one can offer the defence that ‘they couldn’t see this coming’ if we did see a serious attack or murder on a British football ground and quite frankly, those governing football would have blood on their hands.

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