Pitch Invasions are the New Pyro
“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.
ATTEMPT TO TAKE PYRO INTO A PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY FOOTBALL MATCH AND ITS HIGHLY LIKELY THAT SOMEONE ELSE WILL BE IN YOUR SEAT FOR THE REST OF THE SEASON!
SEEN PYRO BEING USED AT A FOOTBALL MATCH? THINK IT LOOKS FUN?
There is no doubt about it, the use of pyro to some fans is exciting. Photos of smoke bombs and flares being used at European matches give the impression of a colourful and high adrenaline crowd of fans.
The pre-season excitement is kicking off, especially for fans who get the chance to attend stadiums and play teams they would not normally play. A Pre-season friendly is a ‘regulated’ football match and the law applies just as much for pre-season friendlies as it does for the main season matches. As far as policing is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether it is a friendly or a competitive match, the policing strategies are the same, and the risks that the fans face if they decide to take pyro to a friendly game are just as serious.
Whether or not the use of smoke grenades (or plumber’s smoke tabs), flares and fireworks gives the game a better atmosphere, they are banned from English football, and without a doubt the courts do not see that same colourful, high adrenaline atmosphere. The starting point for a court considering the sentence for someone who has attempted to enter a stadium with pyro is 3 months in prison. In many cases it is very difficult to persuade the courts to come down from this 3 month figure. Add onto this the fact that it is highly likely that a court will impose a football banning order for at least 3 years (as this is the minimum that a court can impose) and may go as high as 10 years, and a fan’s days of watching football anywhere but in their living room for at least the next 3 years are over. The prison record doesn’t look good to any employer, and any chance of coaching or refereeing even a local kids league is given the Red Card due to the fact the offence of possession of the smoke grenade and the prison sentence and the football banning order will all appear on a Criminal Records Bureau (now Banning and Disbarring Service) check.
Look again at the wording in italics above, a fan doesn’t have to let off a flare in the stadium to fall foul of the law, mere possession on entry is sufficient. The law doesn’t distinguish between smoke grenades, flares and fireworks, they are all treated with the same severity. Nor does it distinguish between the possession and letting off the pyro.
As a lawyer representing football fans, I have concerns about all fans being arrested for pyro possession and use but in particular the criminalisation of youths. Whether or not I agree with the law as it stands, until Parliament changes it, possession of pyro remains an offence. I have had queries from fans who have found that not only have they been banned, but their family members also banned. As a football club is a private entity they can do what they want, so if they decide to ban a whole family they can do so. Chelsea FC has banned fans for 10 years for the use of a smoke bomb at an away match, this was in addition to the 3 year football banning order the court imposed, and Crystal Palace FC wanted to ban a fan for 2 years despite the fact the court had not imposed a football banning order, and this was relating to use of a firecracker on the way to the stadium, not even in sight of the stadium, but the fan was wearing CPFC colours at the time he was seen letting off the firecracker.
Harsh as this sounds, in most cases there is very little I am able to do to persuade a Club to budge on their decision, and in my experience the Football League Clubs take a stronger approach on this than Premier League Clubs. One of the main reasons that the Club will impose a harsh penalty on the fan is that too much use of pryo and the Club will lose its away allocation or have it severely restricted, and this means that the Club may lose revenue due to the actions of a few fans. This is particularly so at Cup games where the lower Football League clubs get the opportunity to play higher Football League or even Premier League clubs, and receive the Gate fees. Hence the consequences of 2 minutes of smoke or colored flame can be very wide reaching for both the Club and other fans.
Particularly if you are a parent or carer for a youth who attends football matches, please pass the message to them that pyro is illegal and the inside of a cell in a youth offending institution could be exactly where they are heading if caught with pyro…and that it not scaremongering or exaggeration…its reality.
For more information on the laws on pyro and other laws relating specifically to football see this leaflet Are you a footie fan? Do you know there are special laws relating to you? which I have prepared to alert fans, particularly young fans, to the law which affects them but which they are often don’t know about, as it doesn’t apply to any other sports events.