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