The Weekend Match: Birmingham City 0-1 Aston Villa
If we look inside ourselves, we all know that something like this had been coming. Already this season, a banana has been thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, Raheem Sterling has been racially abused by a Chelsea supporter, there has been significant crowd trouble at several matches including the FA Cup match between Millwall and Everton, and the recent Championship match between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday was topped and tailed by significant crowd trouble, whilst in Scotland there have been repeated incidences of missiles being thrown at players during matches while, as recently as Friday night, a Hibernian supporter got onto the pitch during their match against Rangers and confronted their captain, James Tavernier.
In the aftermath of something like this happening, finger-pointing is the immediate response. Obviously, the idiot involved will not be setting foot inside St Andrews again, and will be earning himself a criminal record as quite possibly a custodial sentence as a result of being unable temper his manchildish overexcitement. As the hosts of the match, Birmingham City also find themselves extremely likely to find themselves in very hot water indeed. Anything short of a points deduction and/or temporary ground closure will be considered insufficient by many, if nothing else pour encorager les autres, and they’re hardly in a position to complain, no matter what sanction ends up being handed down. Furthermore, it becomes fairly difficult to isolate the behaviour of one fevered mind when three-quarters of St Andrews cheered him for having done it and booing Grealish for the rest of the day. Apparently, physical assault falls under the “just bantz” banner too, these days.
It would be worth taking a second to try to understand the motivations behind such behaviour, were it possible to ascertain any way in which it might make any difference. The match had been playing for less than ten minutes when Jack Grealish was attacked, so it wasn’t as though this was anything to do with anything that had happened on the pitch (not that it would been that excusable, except in a possible scenario in Grealish had come onto the pitch with a new tattoo reading “Jeff Lynne is a wanker” on his arm before getting Garry Monk in a headlock and leading him off to the lavatories for an impromptu hair wash, in which case it might be suggested that he’d have had it coming to him), and one can only look on in wonder at the colossal stupidity of anybody who would think for a single second that anything other than pretty much universal shame would be heaped upon both him and the club that he professes to support as a result of this.
Joint and several liability means that Birmingham City will be hauled over the coals over this. The club ultimately has to carry the responsibility for anything like this happening on their premises, and their case will not be helped by television footage which seemed to indicate a steward getting hauled away by the police after getting a little too involved as Grealish celebrated his goal in front of the travelling Aston Villa supporters. And this goal provided the icing on the afternoon’s narrative cake. After the match, Grealish told the Sky Sports reporter that this is the “best day of my life”, and such a reaction is entirely understandable, considering the circumstances. In this case, revenge was a dish best served piping hot.
There will, of course, be stupendous amounts of moralising over this for the next few days or so. Expect calls for the return of fences around pitches and national service from familiar quarters. But while it’s easy to laugh and living room colonels and their propensity to want simplistic solutions to complex problems, the truth of the matter that something like this has been coming for some considerable amount of time. Online discourse couldn’t really be more toxic than it already is, and perhaps the overflow of the worst aspects of this culture into the world away from our computer and mobile phone screens is ultimately inevitable.
To an extent, it has come to feel surprising that the glee with which people are just plain vile online hasn’t necessarily spread into the outside world, but we’ve been warning about the increasingly swivel-eyed partisanship of a certain proportion of club support bases for several years, and it’s hardly as though there haven’t been serious incidents elsewhere, such as the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in the summer of 2016 or, more recently, the recent door-stepping and incitement of a journalist carried out by a certain neo-fascist agitator in Bedfordshire. This has been encouraged by a government and media which have turned their backs on so much as any pretence national unity in favour of the crudest form of divide and conquer in order to try to secure its own power base (“enemies of the people”, traitors”, “quislings”, “citizens of nowehere”, etc etc etc), fuelled by the sense of entitlement clearly evident a country which believes its own problems are always somebody else’s fault.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of what happened at St Andrews this afternoon, however, isn’t that it happened, it’s that this is a significant crack in a dam created in our own minds which separates a lot of other people from this sort of behaviour. To pretend that the moron involved on this occasion was uniquely driven insane by the sight of Jack Grealish on a football pitch in an Aston Villa shirt would be short-sighted in the extreme. You only have to look at the faces, contorted and twisted with rage, in any photograph of a football match at a moment of high drama to know that some people simply take leave of their senses when they have any involvement whatsoever in football. And we also already know violent crime is rising at breathtaking levels, and that being as obnoxious as possible is more handsomely rewarded with attention than any amount of kindness or basic human decency ever be. If anything, it is surprising that there aren’t more frequent confluences of these types of behaviour.
Doutblessly there will already be edgelords who have given their hottest takes and politicians already preparing the descent of their rhetoric down through lowest common denominator to something even lower. It won’t get the attention they crave if they don’t out-outrage everybody else, after all. For all of that, though, this needs to be nipped in the bud. What happened to Jack Grealish this afternoon may not have been Birmingham City’s fault, but his safety definitely was their responsibility, and they will have to accept the consequences of whatever sanctions are thrown their way. Ultimately, though, there’s little to satisfaction to be taken from what happened at this afternoon’s Birmingham derby. We’d offer ourselves the small consolation of the belief that the person responsible has probably screwed up his chances of ever seeing match featuring the team he feels so strongly about again, but he’s probably already found a way of blaming Jack Grealish for everything that happened.