Grealish attack: A part of football died at Birmingham City

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A part of football died at Birmingham City.

It’s fine for fans to chant and jeer at their rivals. We’ve always treasured the fact that British grounds have traditionally allowed the crowd to be (relatively) close to the action.

Singing and cheering and booing are all part of the atmosphere, building the tension.

Our crowd experience – in mostly modern, well-appointed stadia – is a reason British football is envied around the world.

But on this weekend the global village is viewing a fan who ran from amongst the Birmingham City supporters onto the pitch and swung a fist, from behind, at the neck of Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish.

Things will never feel quite the same again.

Senior football figures always feared this could happen, after the fences that used to cage the fans were torn down post-Hillsborough.

Indeed, it has happened. A drunken Leeds fan shoved Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland in the face in 2012.

But the level of violence directed at Grealish was of a different order. Only by fortune was he uninjured.

Hours later, another supporter raced across the pitch at Arsenal, seeming to push Manchester United’s Chris Smalling as he passed him.

And the weekend had begun with Friday’s confrontation between a Hibernian supporter and Rangers defender James Tavernier on the touchline at Easter Road.

Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster was commendably swift with her condemnation, apology and confirmation that the individual would be banned for life.

All the above was also instantly forthcoming from Birmingham City.

The English Football League, admirably, produced a statement before the match even ended, stressing “those playing in the game must be able to do so safe in the knowledge they will not be subjected to this type of behaviour”.

That’s the key now. How to achieve that? Make the deterrent fit the crime.

Ban the fan from the ground for life? Of course. From all UK grounds? If it’s achievable, absolutely.

Lock him up? The court system will run its course; football will want a sentence to send the strongest possible warning.

After that, it gets more complicated, as any innocent caught up in a class detention will remember.

Make Birmingham play a number of matches (or specifically those against Aston Villa) behind closed doors? Harsh on the law-abiding majority, but that may be seen as a price worth paying, for the sake of the message.

Fine the club? This may happen anyway – certainly if stewarding is found to be at fault.

Deduct points, even? Is it really fair to punish the players (and – again – the law-abiding fan majority)?

Maybe not, but it could be held to encourage self-policing by supporters, which is crucial.

The fences cannot return. There will be calls for better stewarding and/or more policing inside grounds.

But clubs say stewarding standards are at an all-time high, and police resources are at breaking point anyway.

The last word should go to Grealish. Had he reacted as hotter heads might have done, in that tinder-box situation, football would have had a far bigger crisis on its hands.

(c) Sky News 2019: Grealish attack: A part of football died at Birmingham City

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