The issue of player safety in English football is in the spotlight again after a disgraceful weekend where Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was punched from behind by a pitch invader in the match against Birmingham City.
The incident in the second-tier English Championship match came in the same week an Arsenal supporter made contact with United’s Chris Smalling and Rangers captain James Tavernier found himself face to face with a Hibernian fan in the Scottish League.
The man who attacked Grealish was wearing a Birmingham City jacket and ran to punch the midfielder from behind in the first half of the derby match.
He had run onto the pitch from the home section of the St Andrew’s stadium and then blew kisses to the crowd as he was led away by stewards.
Aston Villa said they were “appalled by the disgraceful attack” on Grealish, adding that a “red line has been crossed by this cowardly on-field assault on a player, which is unprecedented in English football.
We trust the perpetrator will feel the full force of the law and the authorities investigate the circumstances surrounding today’s deplorable incident.”
Birmingham apologised to both Grealish and Villa in a statement of their own and banned the fan for life.
“What happened has no place in football or society,” the club added.
“Jack is a Birmingham lad and regardless of club allegiance should not have been subjected to this – there are no excuses.”
Grealish scored in the 67th minute, and was booked for his subsequent celebrations, as ninth-placed Villa kept their play-off hopes alive.
“The EFL condemns the mindless actions of the individual who encroached on to the pitch at St Andrew’s on Sunday afternoon,” said the governing English Football League. “It’s a situation no player should ever be faced with.
“Whilst this incident falls within the remit of the Football Association, we will work with all the relevant parties to address the issue of player and match officials safety on the pitch and ensure the appropriate action is taken.”
A second pitch invasion took place hours later at Emirates Stadium as Arsenal beat Manchester United 2-0.
A man ran onto the field and made contact with United’s Chris Smalling moments after Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a penalty.
He then made his way towards the celebrating Arsenal players with arms aloft before being taken away by stewards.
Smalling has yet to comment but Arsenal moved swiftly to announce after the game that the individual had since been arrested for appearing to push the England defender and is likely to face a lifetime ban from their home matches as they have a “zero tolerance” approach to such actions.
“We utterly condemn the behavior of the individual who ran onto the pitch and approached Chris Smalling,” Arsenal said in a statement.
“We would like to apologise to Chris and Manchester United, and are pleased that the individual was apprehended and arrested. We will be working closely with the Metropolitan Police in their investigation.”
Arsenal are likely to invoke a lifetime ban on the culprit, something Birmingham have also pledged to do after the sickening lunchtime scenes.
On Friday in Edinburgh a fan confronted Rangers captain James Tavernier on the pitch during the Scottish Premiership game with Hibernian.
The PFA said in a statement it was concerned about “this type of behaviour coming back into the game”.
“Incidents like this demonstrate certain problems have not been eradicated and that players can be particularly vulnerable,” the PFA said.