TIS the season for pitch invasions in English football, what with promotion, the play-offs and all that. By far the two most noteworthy this month were the one that shouldn’t have been at Bury, and the one that (apparently) never was at Millwall.
I have a lot of affection for Bury, a real homely club who have always made me feel welcome whenever I’ve been to Gigg Lane. I felt desperately sorry for them after they managed to blow their League Two play-off semi-final against Shrewsbury, losing on penalties against 10 men despite going into the home leg with a 1-0 lead.
It would have been especially heartbreaking for those Bury fans who had taken part in one of the most bizarre pitch invasions I’ve ever seen, just eight days earlier, in the closing minutes of their final league match against Accrington Stanley.
When Phil Jevons scored a 90th-minute penalty to put Bury 1-0 up against Stanley, a lot of Shakers fans thought they had won automatic promotion, thanks to results elsewhere. Unfortunately, they hadn’t – they still needed to score again to pip Wycombe on goal difference.
And so the video of the match shows hundreds of Bury fans pouring on to the pitch, to the sound of booing in the stands, and a bemused Jevons, brushing aside a supporter’s attempted embrace, clearly mouthing the words: “What are you doing?” All the while, Bury lost a few precious seconds of stoppage time, and failed to get the extra goal they needed.
It was a weird mirroring of Bury last promotion from that division, in 1996. That day, they needed to beat Cardiff and hope that rivals Darlington slipped up at Scunthorpe. BBC GMR came up with the ingenious idea of doing full-match commentary from Scunthorpe v Darlington (neither team is anywhere near their patch), just so that Shakers fans at Gigg Lane could keep right up to date with both games.
Bury won, but the game at Scunthorpe hadn’t finished. At Gigg Lane, the fans poured on to the pitch, and waited for news. Darlington were drawing 3-3. Eventually, the final whistle went. “That’s it! Bury are up!” screamed GMR’s commentator at Glanford Park. The video from Gigg Lane shows a nervous crowd on the pitch suddenly burst in celebration as one. On that occasion, at least, a premature pitch invasion had ended happily.
Wind forward 13 years to a pitch invasion which, according to Millwall, didn’t happen at all.
Last Saturday’s League One play-off semi-final first leg between Millwall and Leeds at the New Den certainly had the potential for trouble, despite a carefully-planned police operation and a lunchtime kick-off. By most accounts, it passed off relatively peacefully.
However, one or two journalists got a little over-excited about their description of the afternoon, exaggerating their description of the pitch invasion that followed Millwall’s goal and wrongly claiming that mounted police went on to the field during the game (they went on at full-time).
Unfortunately, Millwall got a little over-excited themselves in responding to these reports, releasing a “blame the press” statement on their official website that might have benefited from a redraft or two.
“It is clear that certain journalists and photographers were sent to The Den with their agenda already formed,” says the statement, offering no evidence to back this up.
“As a result the facts were not allowed to get in the way of a ‘good story’ and as such the events were portrayed in certain quarters in the most graphic terms that were factually incorrect.”
OK, I can accept that. It’s the next sentence I have a problem with.
“There was no pitch invasion, as has been reported in some newspapers, there were no police on the pitch during the game, as has been suggested.”
Yes, there were no police on the pitch during the game. But no pitch invasion? That suggests, to me at least, that no fans got on to the pitch during the game. Even the statement itself acknowledges that two fans got on to the pitch when Millwall scored, one of whom allegedly threw a cigarette at Leeds keeper Casper Ankergren.
(“It appears that a cigarette was also thrown, which made no contact with the goalkeeper, who may also have been pushed in the back,” says the statement. Fine. Launch an appeal to allow the cigarette to play in the Champions League final, then.)
Type “Millwall Leeds pitch invasion” into Youtube’s search engine, and you will – at the time of writing – find a short video showing exactly how many fans made it on to the pitch after the goal.
To their credit, Millwall have banned the two supporters who got closest to Ankergren, in addition to condemning their actions, and have co-operated fully with the Metropolitan Police, who themselves praised the behaviour of the majority of fans at the game.
Clearly, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on whether it was a pitch invasion or not. Ankergren certainly wasn’t impressed, though, calling on Millwall to be punished and describing the incident as “a disgrace to football”.
Let’s hope there’s no such nonsense in tomorrow night’s second leg at Elland Road. After all Millwall, unlike Bury, could still win promotion this season.