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Authorities must clamp down on pitch invaders after worrying Billy Sharp incident – Ricky Charlesworth

The Championship play-off semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United was a classic encounter – but sadly all the talk is about what happened during the post-match pitch invasion

We should really be talking about Nottingham Forest’s superb victory which has them on the verge of a rags-to-riches promotion back to the Premier League.

›But instead, as the dust settles on an action-packed Championship play-off tie between the Reds and Sheffield United, all the talk is about one unsavoury incident that has sadly overshadowed what was a superb contest.

You will have surely seen by now, either during Sky Sports ‘ coverage of last night’s game or on countless video clips on social media, the sickening incident which saw Blades’ captain Billy Sharp allegedly assaulted by a so-called ‘supporter’ during the post-match invasion by jubilant Forest fans.

The incident has already attracted hundreds of thousands of views online and probably had just as many words written about it, with widespread condemnation – and rightly so.

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The injured striker, who incidentally is a former Forest player, was standing pitchside with a cluster of colleagues dotted nearby when the fan appeared to charge towards him head-first. The incident reportedly left Sharp needing stitches and, according to his manager Paul Heckingbottom “shook up and angry”.

Sharp’s response, by way of a heartfelt Twitter post on Wednesday morning, was classy to say the least. Forest have promised a ‘life ban’ for the offender but plenty feel that only punishment from the law will deter this type of incident from happening again.

Prior to Tuesday’s game, Forest’s chairman Nicholas Randall QC posted a 650-word statement on the club website thanking fans for their support but pleading with them to not enter the pitch after the final whistle.

Pitch invasions, such as the one following Huddersfield’s play-off semi-final win over Luton, have become a more familiar sight

Referring to another invasion 24 hours previously during the other Championship play-off between Huddersfield and Luton, he wrote: “After the events elsewhere last night I would like to make a plea to you as regards the game tonight. I know that the huge majority of you, as the spontaneous messaging on social media has shown, do not want to see any supporters invade the pitch when the game is done.

“There are many reasons for this but I need to add the specific requests of the Club for you not to do so. Any incursion on the pitch will put at risk the ability of the other supporters within the stadium to pay their respects to the team and staff for the efforts of this season.”

Nottingham Forest fans stormed the pitch after their side reached the Championship play-off final

The fact that plea was not listened to – thousands of fans stormed the pitch – will come as little surprise given the penchant in recent times for these kind of invasions, whether it be to toast promotion, survival, reaching a final or just because it is the last game of the season. It has been a criminal offence to invade the pitch at a football match since 1991 but how exactly many of those offenders who stepped foot on the City Ground’s hallowed turf can expect football banning order (FBO) letters to arrive through the post?

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Ominously, the Forest chairman’s pre-match message also included the line: “It goes without saying that all the players and officials are entitled to a safe exit from the field of play at the final whistle and we must ensure that this is the case.” Sadly for Sharp, that did not prove to be the case and the incident continues a worrying pattern.

Billy Sharp won plenty of plaudits for his classy response to the incident

Some have suggested that the recent lock-out of supporters during the pandemic is behind this new wave of dissent. True, there have been a clutch of high-profile incidents involving pitch invaders since full crowds returned this season but there was plenty before Covid-19 entered our lexicon too. Arguably the highest-profile of the lot was the assault on Jack Grealish by a Birmingham fan during a game against Aston Villa in 2019, resulting in a 14-week jail sentence for the culprit.

Jack Grealish was attacked whilst playing for Aston Villa against Birmingham back in 2019

Sharp’s manager believes another strict punishment awaits Tuesday night’s offender. He added: “There will be something done about that. We’ve seen what’s happened, we know what’s happened. You hear too many times that people condemn it, but nothing is done and we are the ones who suffer. It is upsetting for many reasons but it will be dealt with.”

Let’s hope that Heckingbottom’s words are heeded.

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