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Safety Pitch: Attack On Grealish Casts Light On Security Flaws

Although it doesn’t happen often, and you rarely, if ever, see the chase on television, a drunken or thrill-seeking fan will make their way past security and dash onto a baseball or football field to run around until they run out of breath or into the hands of authorities.

It’s all a part of Fan Dopedom. Unfortunately, there’s usually someone imbecilic enough in every crowd to try it. And there are holding pens in the basements of every stadium to embrace those who do.

The good news is the perpetrators are only out for a good time and not intent on doing damage to the grounds, themselves or, most importantly, the players.

That wasn’t the case on Sunday in Great Britain when a fan of the Birmingham City football club fan onto his home field and punched Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish while his back was turned during a Championship match.

The scene has been replayed all over the world since, casting a pall over the game because of how much worse it all could have been.

On Monday, the fan, Paul Mitchell, 27, of Rubery, Worcestershire, pleaded guilty of running onto the pitch to attack Grealish and was sentenced to 14 weeks in jail. He was also banned from attending any football match in Great Britain for a decade and fined 350 pounds ($463).

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: A fan is wrestled to the ground by a steward after punching Jack Grealish of Aston Villa during the Sky Bet Championship match between Birmingham City and Aston Villa at St Andrew's Trillion Trophy Stadium on March 10, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

It all played out in the 10th minute of the match as Grealish was walking away from the stands after the ball went out of bounds for a corner kick. Grealish was felled, but not injured by the punch. In fact, he went on to score the winning goal in the second half.

“I cannot help but feel how lucky I was in this incident,” Grealish said in a statement. “It could have been so much worse had the supporter had some sort of weapon.

“I was unaware [of the fan] at the time. We had a throw-in or a corner, and I was walking into position and I just felt a whack around the side of the face. Obviously there is rivalry in football, but I don’t think there is any place for that.

“I just tried to get on with my job, and I think I did — I scored the winner. It was unbelievable, in front of our fans and after what happened in the first half. It was something I have dreamed of since I was a little kid.

“[It has been the] best day of my life. To come here for first time and captain Aston Villa and score the winner, particularly for me being an Aston Villa fan.”

Mitchell’s defense attorney, Vaughn Whistance, tried to explain his client’s behavior.

“He cannot explain what came over himself yesterday morning,” Whistance said Monday. “His initial foolish intention was to go onto the pitch to whip up the crowd. He is certainly remorseful today. He is a man with a partner, they have a 2-year-old together and they’re expecting their second child.”

As you might expect, the general public has not taken kindly to this event. Mitchell has received threats and his family has been forced to move from their home.

Although fans of every sport have been known for throwing items at players on the field, there has really been only one serious case of one harming an athlete.

On April 30, 1993, women’s tennis star Monica Seles was playing a quarterfinal match in Hamburg, Germany when a crazed fan, Gunter Parche, jumped from the crowd and raced to the edge of the court during a break and stabbed her with a boning knife between he shoulder blades. The depth of the wound was just over one-half inch. While Seles was physically OK, she did not play competitively for over two years.

The incident in Birmingham City might have been considered just an aberration has not something similar almost occurred in another spot on Sunday.

An Arsenal football fan also rushed the pitch in his home stadium and made contact with Manchester United’s Chris Smalling at the Emirates Stadium. He was charged with common assault.

While the assailants obviously are at fault, the arenas are being criticized for allowing the incidents to occur. Both clubs have been ordered to examine their security procedures and threatened with penalties if it happens again.

“This weekend a line has been crossed in terms of fan behavior,” said a spokesperson for the Football Association, the governing body of the sport in Great Britain. “On Sunday we saw two separate incidents, at Birmingham City and Arsenal, of individuals entering the field of play and assaulting players. Not only is it an offense to enter the pitch, which could result in a club ban and criminal charges for the individual, but it also puts the safety of the players at risk.

“We will be working with the clubs, the leagues and the police to discuss what collectively needs to be done to protect players and officials on the pitch.

Birmingham City has apologized to Grealish and Aston Villa and banned Mitchell from their stadium for life.

“We deplore the behavior of the individual who committed this act and rest assured he will be banned from St. Andrew’s for life,” Birmingham City said. “The club will also support any further punishment this individual may face in the eyes of the law.

“The club will be working with the relevant authorities to investigate all the circumstances and we will be reviewing our stadium safety procedures. What happened has no place in football or society. Jack (Grealish) is a Birmingham lad and regardless of club allegiance should not have been subjected to this — there are no excuses.”

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