LONDON (AP) — For a person who’s determined to storm a Premier League field and confront — even assault — a player, there isn’t much that stands in the way.
Seating is packed close to the action, and players — especially when taking corners and throw-ins — are in touching distance of rival fans.
With fences dismantled long ago at English stadiums, a sprint from the stands to the pitch can be achieved in seconds before a global television audience. There is a good chance police won’t be there to impede the trespassing fan — only stewards.
“You’ve got generation of fans now who come about where it’s quite unusual to see the police at a football match, which in some ways is a good thing because we’d much rather not be there,” said Mark Roberts, head of British football policing. “But I think that tends to breed anti-social behavior.”
Incidents across the weekend in England have reinforced the need for authorities to reassess security at matches, with the English Football Association saying a “line has been crossed” by unruly fans.
At the Emirates Stadium in London on Sunday, a man invaded the pitch and pushed Manchester United defender Chris Smalling as he appeared to try to join in the Arsenal goal celebrations. Gary Cooper was charged Monday with common assault and entering the playing area.
That incident came hours after Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish was punched by a Birmingham fan who invaded the field during a derby match in the second-tier League Championship. In swift justice, Paul Mitchell was jailed Monday for 14 weeks.
“I cannot help but feel how lucky I was in this incident,” Grealish said in a statement read to the court in Birmingham. “It could have been so much worse had the supporter had some sort of weapon.”
That danger was all-too apparent in tennis in 1993 when Monica Seles was stabbed by a fan during a match in Hamburg, Germany.
Grealish’s alarm is set against the background of rising knife crime in Britain. In the 12 months since March 2018, there were 285 knife killings in England and Wales — the highest number since comparable records began in 1946.
While sporting and criminal authorities are not issuing any specific warnings about knife crimes in sports venues, they were already making plans to enhance stadium safety before the weekend incidents. Jurisdiction over stadium security falls to local authorities who grant safety certificates based on risk assessments.
“Mark and I would probably agree that we’ve gone a bit too far with police-free matches,” Premier League executive director Bill Bush said alongside Roberts in the competition’s London headquarters last week.
In Germany, the Bundesliga said there are police at every game.
“There’s something that’s iconic, symbolically important about the police uniform in the ground,” Bush said. “However many stewards you deploy and however well you train them, that’s never had the same effect, and they don’t have arrest powers so which everyone knows.”
The number of sworn officers at stadiums has dropped since the violence that blighted English football in the 1970s and 1980s largely disappeared from new stands funded by the wealth of the Premier League, which launched in 1992. Stadiums were transformed into safer, all-seat venues, with fences around the playing surface torn down to avoid catastrophes like the 1989 human crush at Hillsborough Stadium that killed 96 people.
“I’ve seen a shifting culture from being a fan in the ’80s on occasions when football was pretty frightening and on a lot of occasions downright unpleasant,” said Roberts, who leads on football issues for the National Police Chiefs’ Council. “There was recognition that this is a major issue and it got a response that was commensurate with it, which actually led to the success we had in making football a really good product for the Premier League and Football League where you could go safely.
“It wouldn’t be such a glossy worldwide product now if you still have regular racist chancing, pitch battles on the terraces.”
Increasing the number of police in stadiums is complicated by the pressure to finance public services in Britain. Since 2009, 22,424 police officers have been cut in England and Wales — playing a role in the rise in stewards used at stadiums.
“We’ve seen a 45 percent increase in assaults on stewards and a commensurate decrease in the number of assaults on the police,” Roberts said. “There aren’t any police there and you’re probably more likely to assault a steward because there’s less of an immediate sanction in terms of arrest and dependent on CCTV (video).”
That could indicate why there was a 6 percent drop in football-related arrests in England and Wales in the 2017-18 season to 1,542.
While encircling fields with police officers would send out a warning, the Premier League sees it as inefficient and knows they would be depriving the wider community of protection.
A court ruling in 2018 said that second-tier club Ipswich was not responsible for paying for policing around the streets of its stadium — even next to the turnstiles. Clubs, particularly lower down the leagues, are even more reluctant to pay for policing inside stadiums, which raises the risk of disorder.
“We haven’t got as many resources,” Roberts pointed out, “so we are having to be really judicious about where we put them.”
Premier League clubs aren’t short of cash for policing, with 211 million pounds ($280 million) spent alone in a year on agents facilitating transfers, according to the most recent figures.
“There comes a point actually you need some police,” Roberts said. “We need to make sure that we’ve got properly funded police in stadiums … but we can’t subsidize football to the detriment of the local community.”
Roberts is blunt when dismissing calls by the head of the Football League, which operates the three professional divisions below the Premier League, to consider ending the blanket ban on alcohol being consumed in stadium seating during games that has been in place since 1985.
“That to me is frankly complete nonsense,” Roberts said. “If you start adding alcohol into people sat there during the course of the game, it just adds fuel to the fire really the issues we currently try to deal with.”
Unlike England, Scotland has a complete ban on fans drinking in stadiums, even in concourses away from the seating. It hasn’t prevented a spate of recent violent incidents over the last week — with two coming at Hibernian.
In a Scottish Premiership game on Friday night, Rangers captain James Tavernier found himself face to face with a Hibernian fan who jumped out of the home support stand. A glass bottle was thrown from the same section the previous weekend as Celtic winger Scott Sinclair prepared to take a corner kick.
“For the image of the game, it’s not right at all,” said Rangers manager Steven Gerrard, a former captain of Liverpool and England. “If it continues someone is going to get hurt and hurt badly.”
The government had already called in football officials and police last month for a summit to discuss disorder at games.
“The incidents that happened over the weekend were a disgrace,” sports minister Mims Davies said.
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