On Pitch Invasions

As I mentioned when introducing this new site, pitchinvasion.net explores fan culture and politics from the world of football. Why is the site called pitch (Americans: read field) invasion.net?

Well, I’ve been in many pitch invasions, and I’ve seen how all their manifestations represent the different facets of supporting a football team.

Indeed, the first football game I ever went to felt like nothing but a nonstop pitch invasion. It was Brighton and Hove Albion versus Ipswich Town at the Goldstone Ground, May 1991, in the English Football League Division Two.

I was eleven years old. I’d been an Albion fan for as long as I could remember, but had never been to an actual game. Football in the 1980s in England had a terrible reputation, and though I always wanted to go growing up, no-one took me to a game.

But this was the last game of the season, and the Albion needed a win to scrape into the playoffs, which would give them a shot at reaching the First Division (now known as the Premiership). I nagged, begged, pleaded, whined, and sulked for several hours before the game in an effort to convince my mum to let me go to the game. Finally she relented and let me go, on the condition she came with me.

(I’m sorry if this sounds like a rejected extract from Fever Pitch, but bear with me.)

Somehow we ended up in the North Stand, where the loudest and drunkest Albion fans stood every game. The surges as the Albion pushed forward should have been frightening to me, as I had never before had several hundred people crushing around me, but I don’t remember being frightened: the game was too thrilling, and the atmosphere too exciting.

At some point I lost track of my mum. The North Stand was literally overflowing with people. This was two years after the Hillsborough disaster, but standing was still allowed in the top two divisions and the perimeter fences ringing the field were still up. Whilst I don’t remember being concerned for my safety, apparently the police were, as they took all the children out of the stand and made us sit right on the side of the pitch.

So I was just yards away in the second half when, with the score tied at 1-1, Brighton keeper Perry Digweed saved a penalty-kick, sending the North Stand surging forward once more and spilling onto the pitch in relief.

It was only a prelude of what was to come. With just moments to go in the game, news filtered through that results had gone against the Albion elsewhere. We definitely needed a goal and a win to make the playoffs.

In the 89th minute, Albion captain Dean Wilkins lined up a free-kick twenty-five yards out. Given I was on the edge of the pitch, I had the perfect view to watch Wilkins (brother of former England captain Ray Wilkins) step-up and curl a beautiful shot into the top right-hand corner of the net.

Being at the front of the crowd, myself and several of my schoolfriends were at the front as thousands of delirious Albion fans poured onto the pitch in uncontained joy. It was quite a memorable first game of football. See the video below and try to spot me in the crowd.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/nwYHanvnmnc" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Pitch invasions can also, however, reflect the dark side of football. On the 27th of April 1996, I was involved in another pitch invasion at a Brighton game that made international headlines. Albion fans had been rocked by the news that the directors of the club had sold our home, the Goldstone Ground, and had no plans to build a replacement.

Chartwell Land, the property development company which had bought the Goldstone, offered the Albion one more season for the price of £480,000. The board turned this down, incensing supporters ahead of what they now believed would be the Albion’s last ever game at the Goldstone, their home for the previous 92 years.

Fifteen minutes into the game, the protests escalated into a mass pitch invasion. The goalposts were torn down in fury; I remember watching the crossbar snap, and wondering what on earth had happened to my football team, and the stadium I had loved. The game was abandoned.

The protest, though, had a remarkable effect: widely reported around the world, it put considerable pressure on the Albion directors to rethink, and they now changed their minds and accepted the price to play at the Goldstone for one more season.

Further pitch invasions occurred frequently, some crossing the line into violent intent, as in the below efforts of Albion fans to catch David Bellotti in the director’s box.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/1f0QrDKKQ3s" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Pitch invasions can be spontaneous and joyous. Pitch invasions can be planned and political. Pitch invasions can be reckless and dangerous. They all represent the good, the bad, and the ugly of those that support football teams.

That’s why I’ve called this site pitchinvasion.net. It will be about all these aspects of those people around the globe that watch its most popular game: who at times care too much, who at times are stupid enough, who at times are passionate enough to ensure football is more than just a game.

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