'Players aren't safe': Is British football returning to dark days of hooliganism?

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 3/11/2019, 12:12 p.m.
With three flashpoints in as many days, Britain's football authorities are facing questions as to whether they are doing enough ...
A fan is wrestled to the ground by a steward after punching Aston Villa's Jack Grealish.

By Ben Church, CNN

(CNN) -- With three flashpoints in as many days, Britain's football authorities are facing questions as to whether they are doing enough over the issue of player safety and their approach to hooliganism

On Sunday, a spectator was able to run onto the pitch and swing a punch at Aston Villa player Jack Grealish during a match in English football's second tier.

Later in the day a supporter was also able to run onto the pitch in the Premier League game between Arsenal and Manchester United.

Once again, the fan avoided stewards before shoving United defender Chris Smalling while celebrating his side's second goal in Arsenal's 2-0 win.

"Commenting would only add to the attention he craved," said Smalling on Twitter.

But it's not just English football that's had to deal with hooliganism in recent days. On Friday in Scotland, Rangers' player James Tavernier was confronted by a fan during the match against Hibernian.

'A serious problem'

All three men involved in the recent attacks have been arrested. Paul Mitchell, the Birmingham supporter who punched Grealish, has been sentenced to 14 weeks in prison after he pleaded guilty to a pitch invasion and common assault at Birmingham Magistrates Court Monday. He has also been given a 10-year ban from attending football matches.

Former Newcastle United and England international Alan Shearer says Birmingham should face strong sanctions and that the various organizations that regulate English football are facing a watershed moment.

"They [Birmingham] should have the strongest possible punishment," Shearer told BBC Sport.

"Someone is going to get hurt, either a player or an official, if they do not stamp this out now. They have to come down heavy."

The Arsenal fan who ran onto the pitch at the Emirates Stadium has been charged with common assault and entering the field of play by the Metropolitan Police.

British football has history when it comes to hooliganism. Fans of England's national team became particularly notorious for pre-match clashes with opposition supporters before the turn of the millennium.

Fast forward to June 2016 and a French court sentenced five English football fans to jail terms for their roles in the violence that marred the England-Russia match at the Euro 2016 tournament.

In the 1980s, English clubs were banned from playing European club competitions after the 1985 Heysel stadium tragedy when fighting fans at the European Cup final caused a crush that killed 39 supporters of Italian club Juventus.

In 1993, tennis player Monica Seles was stabbed on court and England women's manager Phil Neville suggested that could possibly happen in British football.

"We need to start protecting players properly," said Neville to BBC Sport.

"All it takes is for one of these people who get on the pitch to have a knife or other weapon and it will be a footballer who is badly hurt."

How exactly players can be better protected is up for debate, but former Birmingham player David Cotterill went as far as to say that armed police could be the answer.