Two fans were arrested for separate pitch invasions on Sunday, as Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was punched while Manchester United’s Chris Smalling appeared to be pushed.
The nasty scenes are likely to spark a widespread discussion about safety at grounds everywhere, especially as they came on the back of similar recent incidents in Scotland.
Grealish went on to hail it the ‘best day of his life’, recovering from being punched by a Birmingham fan to score the winner in the Second City derby. The fan, named by West Midlands Police as 27-year-old Paul Mitchell, has been charged with invading the pitch and assault.
Smalling has yet to comment, but Arsenal moved swiftly to confirm a man had been arrested for appearing to push the England defender in the wake of the home side’s second goal in a 2-0 win at the Emirates.
The Metropolitan Police added: “A man has been arrested on suspicion of common assault and pitch invasion following an incident during the Arsenal v Man Utd game at the Emirates Stadium today. He is currently in custody at a north London police station.”
Arsenal said the fan “will be banned from Arsenal matches home and away” while Birmingham pledged to invoke a lifetime ban on the culprit in their game after the sickening lunchtime scenes.
Grealish was struck on the side of the head by Mitchell, who ran on to the field less than 10 minutes into the match before throwing a punch from behind the midfielder as he stood in the Birmingham penalty area.
He was quickly restrained by stewards as several other Villa players rushed in to confront him. He was led away by police, blowing kisses to the crowd as he left.
West Midlands police confirmed late on Sunday: “We’ve this evening charged a man with invading the pitch and assaulting Aston Villa player Jack Grealish during the Second City derby.
“Paul Mitchell, aged 27, of Rubery, has been remanded in custody to appear before B’ham Mags Court tomorrow (Mon 11 March).”
Grealish thankfully appeared unhurt and was comforted by team-mates and opponents. He went on to net the only goal with a low, angled shot in the second half, leaping jubilantly in to the Villa supporters to celebrate and earning himself a yellow card.
He told Sky Sports Football: “Best day of my life. To come here, captain Aston Villa and score the winner is what dreams are made of, especially for me as a Villa fan.”
Regarding the incident with Mitchell, he added: “I was just unaware at the time, I was walking into position and then just felt a whack around the side of the face.
“Obviously there’s rivalry and stuff in football, but I don’t think there’s any place for that really.
“I just tried to get on with my job. To score the winner was unbelievable. After what happened in the first half I think it was set up for it.”
His team-mate Conor Hourihane branded the attack “absolutely disgusting,” adding: “Full credit to (Grealish), he showed his class, got the winner and had the last laugh and it’s a fantastic three points for us.”
Villa said they were “appalled” by the “disgraceful attack” and called on the culprit to feel “the full force of the law”.
A club statement read: “A red line has been crossed by this cowardly on-field assault on a player, which is unprecedented in English football.
“We trust the perpetrator will feel the full force of the law and the authorities investigate the circumstances surrounding today’s deplorable incident.
“Local rivalries are part of the fabric of the game. However, as we are sure our friends at Birmingham City would agree, to have a player’s personal safety placed under such jeopardy is a serious cause for concern for the entire football community.”
Birmingham apologised to Grealish and their rivals and said they would undertake a review of their safety procedures.
A statement read: “We deplore the behaviour of the individual who committed this act and rest assured he will be banned from St Andrew’s for life. The club will also support any further punishment this individual may face in the eyes of the law.
“The club will be working with the relevant authorities to investigate all the circumstances and we will be reviewing our stadium safety procedures.
“What happened has no place in football or society. Jack is a Birmingham lad and regardless of club allegiance should not have been subjected to this – there are no excuses.
“Again, we apologise to Jack and all at Aston Villa Football Club.”
The English Football League and Football Association also condemned the attack.
The Premier League has been contacted for comment about the Smalling incident, while Arsenal later released a statement.
An Arsenal spokesman said: “We utterly condemn the behaviour of the individual who ran onto the pitch and approached Chris Smalling during today’s match.
“We would like to apologise to Chris and Manchester United, and are pleased that the individual was apprehended and arrested. We will be working closely with the Metropolitan Police in their investigation.
“The individual will also be banned from Arsenal matches home and away. Our matchday staff receive ongoing training on managing incidents such as this.”
The Professional Footballers’ Association called for a “full inquiry into the incident to ascertain why in a fixture with such a charged history, a fan was able to run on to the pitch virtually unchallenged and assault a player”.
The PFA added in a statement it was concerned about “this type of behaviour coming back into the game”, adding: “Incidents like this demonstrate certain problems have not been eradicated and that players can be particularly vulnerable.”
Match commander, Superintendent Nick Rowe, branded the attack on Grealish “completely unacceptable and outrageous.”
West Midlands police also confirmed a steward was “spoken to” in the aftermath of the Villa goal after television footage appeared to show him pushing Grealish as the player celebrated.
They added: “No offence has been reported at this stage.”
Villa boss Dean Smith said: “One of the lads said there was a steward looking to have a go as well. It’s laughable, something needs to be done and I’m sure the authorities will deal with it.”
There also appeared to be angry clashes between fans outside the stadium, with four arrests for suspected assault of violent disorder offences.
On Friday, Rangers captain James Tavernier found himself face to face with a fan who had jumped out of the Hiberian support before being led away.