How Not To Invade a Pitch
Olly Wicken on when it's appropriate to venture onto the turf
The very best moments as a football fan are the moments of overwhelming elation. It might be an injury-time winner, or a third goal against an invincible Liverpool side, or a fourth goal at the Kennel against The Team Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken. Emotion swamps your rational faculties. You find yourself shedding your composure, your self-control, your shirt. Possibly even your trousers. Often you hug strangers. Sometimes you dry-hump the pillar next to you. Very occasionally you lose your mind so completely that you invade the pitch.
At Watford, pitch invasions have been the appropriate delirious reaction to our first-ever promotion to the Second Division in April 1969, our first-ever promotion to the top flight in May 1982, and the extraordinary 20-second turnaround that led to “Here’s Hogg, Deeney!” in May 2013. These were peak high-on-life moments.
Once, though, Watford fans got it badly wrong. It was 2 May 2015. I’m fully aware it’s a painful memory for most of us, but we need to examine it. We’d secured promotion to the Premier League the previous weekend. Vydra’s goal at Brighton had been a brilliant moment without being decisive, so we’d learned of our promotion away from the stadium. (Without a pitch to invade, some of us had thrown ourselves into the sea.) Now we had a home game where we could be crowned Champions if we won – at home to Sheffield Wednesday.
On ninety minutes, things were looking good. We were 1-0 up, comfortably the better side. Around me in the Sir Elton John stand, people started leaving their seats to run onto the pitch at the final whistle. I understood their excitement. We were about to win a trophy we’d never won before. But then Wednesday equalised.
For me, this changed everything. We weren’t winning any more. We wouldn’t be Champions. Atdhe Nuhiu had denied me the sort of wild ecstasy that might have sent me charging onto the turf. But Watford fans were still pouring down out of their seats, getting ready to invade the pitch at the final whistle. They were spilling onto the playing area, interfering with the team’s attempts to score again and win. They were preventing the success they wanted to celebrate.
I couldn’t understand it. Why would anyone still want to invade the pitch now that we were failing to get what we wanted? As people around me continued to head down to the front, I got annoyed. If we didn’t win, I told myself, any pitch invasion would be premeditated, token, lame, false. Soon, the final whistle came. The fans ran on anyway.
I watched from my seat, simmering with anger. For all of us, this was one of the very worst moments as a football fan – having triumph snatched from you at the death – but these fans were behaving as if it was one of the very best. Looking back, five years on, I now realise that, as I watched, I was scapegoating my fellow fans for my frustration and disappointment. They were seeing the positive side. Watford had been promoted and they wanted to carry on partying regardless. I have no right to criticise them for having fun and celebrating a terrific achievement.
But – and this is the point of reliving the hurt of that game – I have every right to criticise them for devaluing the currency of pitch invasions. That’s my agenda here. Pitch invasions need to be cherished and ringfenced. They should be an instinctive crowd reaction to triumphant moments on the pitch. No one should decide to go on the pitch anyway if the moment didn’t happen.
Think back to the proper spontaneous invasions. The scramble out of your seat, not noticing that you’re scraping your shins. Falling over the advertising hoarding and landing on your face, but not caring. Running in every direction with no clue where to go. Recklessly grabbing someone – anyone – and blurting out a marriage proposal (perhaps). That is how to invade a pitch.
So, please. At the end of this season, if it goes well and we’re about to win promotion back to the Premier League, please stay in your seat as the final whistle approaches. Keep saying to yourself “I’m not allowed on the pitch, I must keep off the pitch”. And then, as the season climaxes in a mind-warping moment of release and joy, just let yourself go and see where your legs take you.