Between a sex toy being apparently strapped to the head of one of their supporters and a pitch invasion at the end of the match, it rather felt as if there might be something in the water at Villa Park last night. Much as we may have scoffed at the appointment of Tim Sherwood was selected to be the new manager of the club on Valentine’s day, Aston Villa have won three out of five matches under his charge and now going to Wembley for the semi-finals of the FA Cup, the club’s first trip to this particular of North London for the first time in five years. Aston Villa may have been inconsistent over the last few weeks, but they’ve picked up some results, and that’s a start.
If the BBC was to be believed, however, we saw signs of the decline and fall of western civilisation at Villa Park yesterday afternoon when at first some and then considerably more Aston Villa supporters took it upon themselves to invade the pitch at the end of their FA Cup quarter-final against West Bromwich Albion. Mark Lawrenson seemed to take it as a personal front and, from my living room, Twitter stopped working for thirty seconds or so, presumably as it groaned under the weight of all the moralising in the media. “Why would you do this? You’re winning, absolutely stupid. Loads of villages have lost their idiots tonight. Absolutely bonkers. It’s like a scene from the 1980s all over again. Absolutely ridiculous.” Yes, Mark. It is, isn’t it?
People entitled to differing opinions over whether people should have been on the pitch at Villa Park at the end of the match last night, but to suggest that what happened anything that did happen was “like a scene from the 1980s all over again” was particularly absurd, and especially coming from a player who was right there on the pitch during that decade. The first casualty of making a point is usually subtlety, but the reaction of the entire Match Of The Day team was that this was a “disgrace”, rather than what it looked like from the screen of a television set, which was a pretty spontaneous outpouring of long-repressed happiness from supporters of a club that has been in a slow, inexorable and anesthetysing decline over the last few seasons.
It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup can cause such a sudden expression of emotion. Sure enough, West Bromwich Albion are local rivals of Aston Villa, but the two teams had met just five days earlier in the Premier League and there had been no such outburst then. For the supporters of Aston Villa, however, the last few seasons must have felt like purgatory after a few seasons when it looked as if there was a chance that the club could possibly launch an assault on a place in the Champions League, albeit only faintly. These days, though, Aston Villa are very much amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the Premier League, and a cause to celebrate is a cause to celebrate.
It would be foolish to state that everybody who got onto the pitch at Villa Park last night had benign intentions, though. There were reports of trouble in a pub during the afternoon, and it has been reported that chairs were thrown from the travelling supporters’ area of the pitch. Presumably, should there be an investigation into what happened, it will take into account the likelihood that an evening kick-off, which was put in place at the behest of a television contract, allowed for all-day drinking and a greater possibility of something like this happening in the first place. None of this is to excuse anybody causing trouble. It’s more of a plaintive cry for a little perspective when incidents like this do occur.
Anybody who went to football anything like regularly during 1980s has at least one story to tell of what it was like during that time, whether of overcrowding, of being pushed and shunted around, of fights breaking out, whether organised or not. At their extremes, they ended in death, as at Heysel, and later at Hillsborough. That culture wasn’t necessarily all about hooliganism – there was no hooliganism at Hillsborough, just as there was none at Bradford, when fire claimed fifty-six lives – but it was about neglect, about a culture of containment rather than treating the game as something that anybody should actually enjoy attending.
We’re a long way from that world now, of course. The outbreaks of trouble that do occur these days are amplified by the media in a way that they simply couldn’t have happened thirty years ago. In the modern age, though, there is little appetite for any sort of trouble and there is no interest whatsoever in trying to sweep it under the carpet. It is to be hoped that whose behaviour was malign at Villa Park are found and brought to justice. It is also to be hoped, however, that those for whom being on the pitch was merely an expression of joy are not caught up in a fishing expedition on the part of the authorities and police.
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