A little under 10 minutes had gone when Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish received an awkwardly bouncing throw-in and won a corner off a Birmingham City defender. He turned and began to walk into the box. It was then when a short figure in a dark coat and cap darted from the stand, ran up behind him and swung a right hand into the side of his head. Grealish fell, although thankfully no serious damage was done, the intruder was soon restrained by stewards, and Grealish later scored the only goal of the game. Villa could have asked for no better reparation, and the intruder will presumably be banned for life and could face criminal prosecution, but the issue feels much wider than that.
The incident feels like the tip of a much bigger issue. Over the past few years, Britain has become a much angrier, more aggressive place. Knife crime is up almost two-thirds on five years ago while hate crime has more than doubled in the past five years.
Identifying causes is never straightforward, and this is perhaps not the place to do so, but some inter related issues are perhaps worth highlighting. The first is the austerity policy pursued by the Conservatives in their three administrations since 2010 (until 2015 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, from 2015-17 in sole power and since 2017 as a minority government). Education and health are in crisis, there have been major cutbacks to the police and social services, welfare and benefits have been slashed and the result is fury and hopelessness with a stretched and demotivated police force that is struggling to cope.
Add to that the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum following a campaign that featured unprecedented right-wing and nationalist rhetoric and a barely functioning government presided over by the callously self-serving Theresa May. When she was home secretary, May introduced the so-called “hostile environment” to discourage immigration, aspects of which were last week ruled racist by a British court and the result is a fractious and uneasy country.
The Brexit vote took place during Euro 2016 and it was obvious then in France that it had lifted the lid on an ugly aspect of the British character that had for years been suppressed. Immediately the nationalist posturing was back, the result of which was violence in Marseille and Lens, the latter incidents coinciding with the murder in Birstall, West Yorkshire, of the MP Jo Cox, whose killer shouted the right-wing slogan “Put Britain first!” as he stabbed her.
Anybody who has been to a football match in Britain regularly over the past decade will have seen a rise in instances of violence and racism, something that reflects and is reflected in the mindless tribalism of social media. There have been cases of anti-Semitism involving West Ham and Southampton fans, Raheem Sterling was racially abused by a Chelsea fan while a Tottenham fan was banned after throwing a banana at Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. There was fighting between Millwall and Everton supporters at a recent FA Cup tie and there have been numerous instances of missiles being thrown in games in Scotland recently.
Even during the worst period of hooliganism in Britain, though, during the seventies and eighties, it was rare for players to be attacked.
The punch thrown at Grealish, though, follows an incident on Friday when a Hibernian fan jumped from the stand to confront the Rangers captain James Tavernier.
This is a problem British football has not had to deal with in 30 years. In the seventies and eighties, pitch invasions were prevented by the erection of fences, but they were removed following the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 people were crushed to death. After that horror there was a powerful unwritten code among fans that they did not leave the stand, that they did not offer a reason for fences to go back up. If that understanding has gone, it presents a major difficulty. There is, after all, very little any club can do to prevent one or more fans rushing onto the pitch.
Last season, when three fans invaded the pitch at the London Stadium in an ill-conceived protest against the West Ham board, the club was fined £100,000. There will be calls for a vast fine or a points deduction for Birmingham, or perhaps even for them to have to play one or more games behind closed doors, on the logic that it is their duty to provide a safe environment for football to be played in.
That satisfies a sense that something must be done but it seems neither really to tackle the problem nor especially fair. Some Birmingham fans, it’s true, applauded the pitch invader, but many thousands did not. If they are season-ticket holders, should they be deprived of seeing a game they have already paid to watch? Collective punishment always feels as though it’s designed more so those doling out the punishment can feel good about exercising vengeance rather than to actually bring about any improvement in behavior.
The issue, anyway, runs far beyond Birmingham or even football. This is the country Britain is becoming, a place where cowards run up behind people wearing the wrong-colored shirt and punch them. This is a symptom of a society that is grievously ill. Britain is rotting from the head.