“Pitch invasions are common occurrences at rugby grounds after international matches. People may not welcome it, but the pitch invasion is not regarded as criminal activity or a serious problem. The youngsters who exuberantly invade the pitch when their side wins are not potential criminals, and should not be regarded as such”. Comment by David Maclean MP during the House of Commons debate on the Football (Offences and Disorder) Bill 16th April 1999
In a month where Spiderman has been removed from the pitch at Sunderland”s Stadium of Light and a Gorilla advertising campaign saw three men invade the pitch at White Hart Lane with the purpose of advertising the headphones endorsed by Spurs, it is becoming obvious that pitch invasions are becoming the 2014/15 football season trend. Incidents of pyro use in stadiums seems to have decreased. ‘Pyro is so last season’ is a comment made by a fan a few weeks ago, and I think he is right.
I represent football fans who have been arrested and charged with football offences, and last year I was in court week after week representing fans who were facing up to 3 months in prison and a football banning order for having possession of pyro in a stadium. This year I have already seen a huge increase in pitch invasion cases. Unfortunately, what is classed as ‘exuberance’ at rugby, is not classed as the same at a football match. Pitch invasion is a criminal offence, it carries a fine and is also likely to result in a football banning order.
The debates in Parliament at the time the legislation relating to pitch invasions at football was being passed, seemed to indicate that it was being made a criminal offence in order to prevent violence on the pitch. The offence of pitch invasion was introduced in 1991, in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and the recommendation by Lord Justice Taylor in his 1989 report that the fences should be removed at football stadiums. In the same year, there was a pitch invasion by Birmingham fans at Crystal Palace which ended up with sixteen people being taken to hospital, one with stab wounds, and the match was held up for 26 minutes. This seemed to be the final straw for a Government which was not overly keen on football fans. The Government decided something has to be done to prevent rioting fans coming onto the pitch and hence, the offence of pitch invasion was created in the Football (Offences) Act 1991.
While most football fans will agree that they go along to football to watch the match and don’t want it being disrupted by disorderly behaviour on the pitch, the footage of the first pitch invader at the Tottenham Hotspur v Partizan Belgrade shows that most fans were not overly concerned about the fact the match was being held up for a couple of minutes while the invader took selfies on the pitch. Neither the fans nor the players had quite so much good humour by the time the third invader was running shirtless around the pitch. Were these invasions carried out by fans who were likely to commit disorder at future football matches, and who should be banned from football matches for a least three years, and also forced to report to police and hand in their passports every time England or Spurs play overseas? In my opinion, this is not criminal activity which justifies a football banning order. It should be a club matter.
There is no denying that the club could face punishment for not preventing the pitch invasion, UEFA are considering charges which could result in a hefty fine, and the advertising revenue may be affected. It is common in televised matches that the club has to pay compensation to Sky Sports or BT Sport for the loss in advertising revenue which is a result of the TV cameras being turned away from the invader on the pitch. The club has wide reaching powers to ban a fan, and most clubs use this power. In addition if they want to do so, they can bring a claim through the civil courts for any loss revenue.
So you would think that as the clubs have ample power to deal with these invasions, that the courts would not be overly concerned about imposing their own restrictions…well think again. In addition to a fine, the courts regularly impose a football banning order, which means that the fan will be banned from attending any regulated football match for the next three years, and will also have to notify the police if they change address, as well as having to hand in their passport to the Police whenever England or their club play overseas.
The fact that a fan is apologetic for the fact that they tried to hug the referee, or wanted to congratulate a goal scorer, is not enough to prevent the courts imposing a ban. Recently a pitch invader was taken off of the pitch by the stewards, who in a lack of judgment took the fan past the Away fans, causing them to become vocal and throw coins at the fan on the pitch, this was deemed by the court to be the fault of the fan on the pitch, and something which required a ban as otherwise the fan may go to a football match again and do the same thing. Nothing was said about the fact that the opposing fans were themselves committing an offence by throwing coins, nor that the steward had completely misjudged the situation, or that the Club had already issued the fan with a Club ban.
Arguments that the Club is most likely to impose a ban on the fan often hold no weight with the courts, they still seem to feel it is their duty to impose the football banning order, even though they have to accept that if a fan is banned by a Club they are highly unlikely to be invading their pitch any time soon. The Police are notified by the Club if a fan is banned, and will look out for the fan at away matches, and will notify the Club if the fan is seen at an away match. The fan who purchased the ticket for the banned fan is usually also banned by the Club.
Hence, the pitch invasion is being treated with the same severity by the police and the courts as the use of pyro. No mater what the circumstances, a pitch invader faces a football banning order. That is not to say that it is a foregone conclusion, and in many cases I have persuaded the courts that they should not impose a football banning order, however it is an uphill struggle and fans should be aware of this.
After all as was said in Parliament during the debate on creating the offence of pitch invasion, “we who follow the rugby code..have no need for legislation of this kind…Rugby has been well described as a game designed for ruffians but played by gentlemen..”. Football is not rugby, and the same behaviour of rugby fans carried out in a football stadium faces the full force of the law. The law is certainly not equal when it comes to football fans.