Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Aston Villa pitch invasion & moral panics

A recent FA cup Quarter final tie saw a pitch invasion by Aston Villa fans, as their team beat local rivals West Bromwich Albion by 2-0 at home, prompting media reports of a return to the 'dark ages' of the 1970s and 80s when pitch invasions and/or football related 'disorder' were common place. However, I would suggest that  closer examination of what seems to have happened during this incident shows such fears to be premature and somewhat alarmist. Furthermore, I would also argue that the reactions by match commentators and the general tone of media reporting of this incident reflect what I think is an ongoing moral panic not only about pitch invasions at football matches, but also of crowds in general (especially football crowds).

Historical contexts:
Pitch invasions have a long history at UK football matches (but are rarer these days) and were often associated with disorder. However, they don't always involve fighting between rival fans, and are more likely to be a celebratory response by fans to their team winning, and any interactions with rival fans are usually confined to ritualised behaviours (such as gesticulation, chanting, etc) rather than than overt physical aggression (see Geoff Pearson's work for detailed studies of football fans' behaviour & their treatment). However, football authorities (such as the FA and the Police) have tended to take a very dim view of such collective expressions  of celebration, and they often respond to them in a fairly robust way (see photo below of the police response at Villa Park).While they are technically illegal under the 1991 Football Offences Act, there are rarely enough stewards/ police to stop a determined pitch invasion (let alone arrest all those who take part in one!), and prevention usually relies on social pressure, with clubs, players, and commentators all queuing up to criticise such incidents in their aftermath- as happened this weekend . 

Aston Villa v West Brom

Police face the crowd at Villa Park

Villa Park pitch invasion:
This particular game was perhaps likely to inspire strong emotions, seeing as Aston Villa and West Bromwich are local rivals from Birmingham, with their grounds less than five miles from each other. So, during stoppage time (and perhaps not altogether unsurprisingly),  the first of two pitch invasions by Aston Villa fans began, and prompted the following reaction from the match commentator Mark Lawrenson;
Why would you do this? You're winning, absolutely stupid. Loads of villages have lost their idiots tonight. Absolutely bonkers. 
Strong words, indeed. But in the televised footage, this first invasion appears to involve no more than 100 fans at at most, and the vast majority of fans seem to stay in the stands, with some booing those on pitch & gesticulating for them to get off- presumably because if the match had been abandoned at that point (with Aston Villa 2-0 up and very likely to win), the match would have had to have been re-played with no guarantee of them winning again. However, the second pitch invasion happened after the final whistle had gone, (meaning that Aston Villa were now through to the semi-finals), and involved many more Aston Villa fans (within a few seconds the pitch is full & large sections of the stands are now empty), suggesting that this second action was now broadly supported by the fans. The mood of the fans seems celebratory (rather than aggressive), and many of them surround the Aston Villa players to congratulate them and/or take their photos. Some of their behaviour may have been a little over-exuberant, but I can't see any footage that makes me think that anyone was under serious threat from the crowd (there's a Tweet that zooms in on footage of the assistant referee furiously running away as the pitch invasion happens, but the crowd appears to ignore him). However, the alarmist media reporting continued, as illustrated in how the BBC presented their interviews with Aston players afterwards. For instance, the following extract with goalscorer Fabian Delph was highlighted;
It was dangerous. Someone tried to take my boot off. People tried to kiss me and were biting me. It was scary
On its own, this suggests quite a scary situation, but if you go to the video footage where the quote comes from, you can see that Fabian laughs when he describes this incident, and doesn't seem to have been adversely affected by the experience- so it doesn't seem so serious when viewed less selectively in a wider context. 
Aston Villa v West Brom

Moral panics & their tragic consequences?
Finally, there are potentially deeper issues involved with this apparent moral panic over pitch invasions, with the most obvious, being that of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where 96 fans were fatally crushed against metal fences designed to prevent a pitch invasion. In a previous post on Hillsborough , I highlighted the tragic irony raised by the Taylor Report into the disaster, that previous to Hillsborough, no one had ever died during a pitch invasion at UK football matches, but on 15/4/1989, 96 fans died in preventing a fictitious pitch invasion that never happened. UK football stadium design and safety procedures have come a long way since Hillsborough and such tragedies are thankfully very unlikely to happen again.  However, I worry that reports of pitch invasions that emphasise the 'irrationality' or even 'madness' of those involved, not only obscures accurate exploration of what actually happens, but also risks creating the space where irrationalist narratives of crowds could re-emerge into popular social discourse.
Police cordon during the Hillsborough disaster


Canter, D, Comber, M & Uzzell, D (1989) Football in its place: An environmental Psychology of Football grounds. Routledge: London, UK

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting to see this topic dealt with in this way. I've always thought the way the authorities deal with pitch invasions is way out of proportion to the consequences of such events. Indeed I have tried searching the web for examples of serious injuries as a result of celebratory pitch invasions and have not been able to find anything. The so-called threat is far less than what happens as a result of accepted behaviour at rock concerts (it may well be that this is also exaggerated but at least there is documented evidence of injuries) yet media coverage is orders of magnitude greater, possibly because most top-flight sport receives extensive live media coverage whereas this is not the case for music concerts barring the major festivals. As you correctly say, the consequences of *preventing* pitch invasions have been far more tragic. We are told grounds are so much safer now all-seated but if there had been no fences, there would have been no Hillsborough tragedy.

    There is something beautiful about the spontaneous outpouring of emotion of a pitch invasion, the sea of humanity engulfing the playing area. It used to be commonly accepted in cricket and you would see a similar thing at the end of the Open golf where the crowd would rush the 18th fairway to get a better view of the green. This would usually happen while the last players were walking up the fairway so the players would have to make their way through thousands of people! It seems now the authorities and media just want to portray an image where the spectators pay their money, sit down and keep quiet. Although there are still double standards - it is noteworthy that a week later following another FA Cup game, Reading fans invaded the pitch and this was portrayed as good-natured, wonderful scenes. It seems to be more accepted, in a rather patronising way, for fans of smaller teams.