"This week, I have given my Non-League Secret Footballer a break and have decided to write an article myself about a current story that I can provide a very direct insight into. The NLP edition that was out on April 21st carried a front page story about the Kidderminster vs Stockport match where several players from both sides were confronted by some Stockport fans, and a Kidderminster player was actually attacked!
Like many people, I thought what happened was disgraceful, but unlike most of you, this is something that has happened to me once while playing football.
In 2010 while playing for Kingstonian in the Ryman League Play-Off final at Borehamwood, and quite early in the game, a Borehamwood “fan” came onto the pitch and attempted to throw a punch at me. There is actually video footage of the incident showing him run a reasonably long way to get on to the pitch to do what he did, and almost fall over a couple of times on the way.
Now the events leading up to this happening were that I was up for a free kick and a ball had ended up being played into the box. The ball was only just gathered by the keeper before I could get to it but thinking the ball was there to be won, I tried to challenge for it and just got beaten to it. As happens every week in football, there was contact with me and the keeper, but nothing deliberate or even particularly dangerous and the ref gave a free kick but nothing more. Both myself and the keeper got up and had a small bout of what many people like to call “handbags”, which was such a non-event, I would struggle to remember it if it wasn’t for what happened next!
As it was all settling down and our teammates and the referee were moving us both along, a “fan” made his way on to the pitch and headed straight for me. I saw him coming once he had cleared the pitchside wall, but didn’t pay any attention to him as all I thought to myself is “what is this clown doing?”. As a player, some kind of stick from the other team’s fans seems to be part of the territory now-a-days. This could be funny and be genuine banter, or it can have a nastier side to it. Unfortunately, the nastier side seems to be happening just as much, if not more so, than the banter that adds to the atmosphere at games.
I knew this guy wasn’t on the pitch to shake my hand or tell me that I was his favourite player, but there was no way I was expecting what happened next. He was already shouting and swearing as he stormed over so I thought he would have marched over, finished his say (which he may have thought I would somehow be interested in), then stormed off the pitch again. Instead he kept coming straight over then attempted to throw some kind of double handed punch / push across my chin. He managed to make a connection, as despite the fact I was fully aware he was there, I did not think anything like that was going to happen.
Did he hurt me? No, but that is hardly the point! He was a much smaller guy than me (for those who don’t know me I stand over 6’ 3” and 15 stones and this guy was far smaller than me for what it matters) and I have been hit far harder by others in the past by accident than he managed to, but nevertheless I was stunned!
It took me 4 or 5 secs to actually process what he had done, and when I did, I naturally got very angry and tried to react. Luckily for me players from both sides had reacted quicker than I did and immediately got in front of me to try and calm me down, while the little “hero” who had jumped on to the pitch was already back in the stands celebrating his five seconds of fame. I say luckily for me because at that stage I had totally lost my temper so was not thinking properly and it later turned out that Sky Sports picked up the story and while at work the following week, it was picked up by some in my office as we had a TV on all day that was sometimes left on Sky Sports. My boss became aware of the incident but treated it very lightly as he could see I was ok and hadn’t done anything for him to be worried about. It did make me wonder though, what would have been the consequences if this had put me in a compromising situation and having to explain away a bigger fallout to my boss if there had been one?
Anyway, once the commotion had died down, the referee checked if I was ok and complimented me for showing the restraint I did then carried on with the game. I played the rest of the game feeling very angry and we ultimately went on to lose 2-0 to two very late goals, so that made a bad day even worse for me, and became my first Ryman play-off defeat, with that game being my third season of being part of the play-offs.
The events that followed though managed to annoy me even more, and in many ways sum up why things like this are still happening. Firstly although the police escorted the man from the ground, they let him go without any charge, despite what most people thought. The common view was that he had been arrested and charged. It was only when I followed up and complained, that anything more was done. In the end all he ended up with was a caution anyway! What kind of deterrent is that? This really annoyed me and also made me ask, if the situation was reversed, would I just have got a caution or in likelihood been charged with an offence? What would have been the difference?
Also just escorting him out and letting him go surely meant he could have hung around to try and have another go after the game if he wanted to? None of it made sense to me!
Friends at work who saw the incident on TV took to Google straight after to find out more about it, and found message board threads with plenty of fans justifying it, claiming he did it because I had kicked out at the Boreham Wood goalkeeper. Not only was this untrue, but even if I had, is it it ok for a “fan” to try and attack a player for this? If it had happened in everyday life to any of those fans justifying it, would they still have the same view that it was “my fault?”? What if the guy had managed to hurt me or had been armed? Also what if my reaction had been different and I had grabbed him and hit him back or even just escalated the situation and other members of the crowd ended up joining in?
Additionally I looked at pictures of the event and saw most fans behind the goal, who were all opposition fans, actually laughing at what had happened with some even waving gestures at me in what can only be described as being in a less than friendly way. All this because I was “lucky” enough to have someone try to hit me over a game of football!
Some players let themselves down at times in a different ways on the pitch, but one way in which I think a minority of fans regularly do themselves no favours is in the abuse they regularly aim at players. When players walk out on the pitch, they are fair game to be criticised for performance, but not to be abused, and in this case, assaulted! In my time I have played in games where fans have hammered me for playing badly or while trying to put me off to play badly, made me laugh during games with some really great one liners and songs, but also felt they were able to scream at me things like “I hope you die” while getting treatment for an injury. I can accept the first two, but you couldn’t pay me enough to accept the third, or to be attacked on a pitch.
For as many fans who expressed disappointment at what happened in my play-off game, there were clearly many who just thought it was funny, and I wonder how many thought the same about the incident at Kidderminster?
What happened to me is now something I laugh about with my friends, and am regularly reminded about the time I was “bullied by a fan”. The story has been re-told in so many different ways and has ended up with a version of me having been flat out on my back after a “knock-out blow” from the little man who had me running scared, but the reality is there is a serious issue behind this, which has been brought back into the spotlight by recent events.
As disappointing as it is, this has happened many times since both in the professional and semi-professional game, and the chances are, this will happen to more players in the future. Some fans seem to think its ok, while others who may not actually run on the pitch and do it themselves, actually view it as being funny, and at least in my case, the punishment was so soft, there is no real incentive not to do it again!"
Francis Duku, Founder of Our Game