When you never wish to upset anyone, let alone commit an act of violence, the sight of someone doing precisely that is absolutely horrible and almost beyond belief. It’s easy to think that those doing it are some sort of evil scumbag. And they are. At least in that moment.
So when we saw that ‘fan’ take to the pitch to assault Jack Grealish, it really was shocking to most of us. We react to it by calling the perpetrator all names under the sun. We react with horror. But to many who experience lives shot through abuse and violence it will have looked like nothing at all – except perhaps funny. The punishment they will receive for such crimes as running onto a pitch and attacking a footballer will be nothing compared to the punishment they will likely have already taken and dished out in life.
While they must be held 100% accountable for their actions, we need to understand that this sort of behaviour does not come from nowhere. It isn’t just a ‘one bad apple’ scenario. We need to see it as part of an abuse culture that is rife in football. And it is rife in football because it is rife in our society, from politics to popular culture to our private lives: from Twitter to the terraces.
Denouncing it is easy but to stop it we need to treat the disease, not just the symptoms.
We need to tackle mental health issues. I tend towards the view of life that if you’re doing something that is, to term it crudely, a bit f*cking bonkers, that’s a good indication that you’re a bit f*cking bonkers. We know governments have never taken mental health seriously and still don’t fund treatment properly, as anyone who has ever tried to access such help through the NHS can attest.
And when you have a society where significant numbers are mentally ill, depressed and psychotic – and often undiagnosed – many of whom are self-medicating on drugs of various sorts, incidents such as this are much more likely to happen; coins and bottles are more likely to be thrown. If you are in a psychological state where you have lost your empathy for your fellow humans, running onto a pitch and clouting someone doesn’t seem such a crime and when you’re supported by your friends, fans and allies and gain their applause for doing it, well, that seems like a good thing, not a bad thing.
When you have a society that is hugely divided between the haves and have nots, when you isolate and economically deprive a significant swathe of society, people slowly lose any investment in that society and once that happens, all bets are off. It’s easy to decry and to tell them to have more respect, but you can only kick people for so long before they’ll kick you back, one way or another, no matter how much you tell them they shouldn’t.
And the fact is we tolerate verbal abuse in football all the time. It is completely normalised in the grounds and in life in general. Look at what is routinely written on social media just in relation to football: the nastiness; the mocking; the aggression; the name-calling.
I’ve written about this football abuse culture before, so won’t revisit it now in detail. But as night follows day, if you condone or allow such behaviour in the name of banter, more and more will feel justified or validated in even more extreme behaviour. It will keep escalating until someone does something like we saw at St Andrew’s or Easter Road in the Hibernian v Rangers game.
When you are with 30,000 people, you only need 0.3% to fall into one of these vulnerable categories to have 100 people who are going to potentially behave badly. It’s a numbers game in part. I also tend to the view that when we over-react and over sensationalise these incidents, we inadvertently glamourise them and make doing them even more attractive to those who are open to such persuasion.
The Hibernian supporter was said, in the over-amplified parlance of subsequent press reports, to have ‘attacked’ Rangers’ James Tavernier. He didn’t attack him. He sort of confronted him. The St Andrew’s incident was an attack. At Easter Road it was one poorly aimed kick out at the ball and a push from the player, before the police moved in and took the miscreant away. It lasted seconds.
But even so, Hibernian chief executive Leeann Dempster said she was “raging and furious”.
“What are we going to be talking about tomorrow?” she added. “You’re going to be asking me about this utter idiot. This individual will be banned for life.”
This incursion onto the pitch was treated as an outrage by the club and commentators alike. Ally McCoist described it, I thought, as though passing comment on a player.
“I don’t know what the bampot is doing, I really don’t. He runs by the security guard there, I think initially he comes on to try and kick the ball. But listen, make no mistake about it, that is a complete and utter imbecile and with a bit of luck he’ll be spending tonight in the cell.”
We all understand their feelings, but to the lad that came on the pitch and to those who empathise with him, this is all glorification of that act. Look at the effect they’ve had. They’ve been noticed. And if you feel like nothing you will ever do in life will make any difference to anything, then making this sort of impression is a way to actually feel alive. Grealish’s assailant will likely never make a bigger splash in the public consciousness. As people queue up to tell him what a shithouse he is, he’s having more and more impact. From that weird standpoint, he’s actually winning and by abusing him we are accidentally enabling him in his destructive behaviour.
Both would’ve known what would happen to them when they did what they did and they still weren’t bothered. When you’ve got people in society with such little left to lose in life, threats of the cells or banning orders are of no use, nor are they a deterrent.
Ringing every ground with a wall of stewards on the off chance of stopping a pitch invader isn’t practical. The only way to solve all of the problems of fan-on-fan or fan-on-player abuse is to address the psychological and societal issues that allow it to flourish. Everything is related to everything else. You cannot strip out one example of dysfunctional behaviour from the society it was born from.
It is always tempting to take a simplistic view of these issues, tempting to say “they’re just twats who need slapping down”. If you met them, they probably would be absolute twats: the sort of people you and I would run a mile from. That’s because the damage is done and they’re already f*cked up. You don’t run on a pitch and lamp someone if you’re not f*cked up. Something has gone wrong somewhere.
If we simply try and address it only when it happens and not consider how everything else feeds into the act before it happens, we will never stop it happening. Condemnation is understandable and easy but ultimately impotent.