MARTIN SAMUEL: Three months inside is not enough for unruly mobsters who attack players and managers while invading the pitch… they will only be deterred by PROPER jail sentences

  • A Nottingham Forest fan assaulted Billy Sharp after Forest beat Sheffield United
  • Robert Biggs, 30, has been jailed for six months but will likely only serve three
  • Incidents involving Patrick Vieira and Oli McBurnie have also made headlines
  • The courts must come down harder on offenders to stop more disorder in future

When district judge Grace Leong was confronted with a teenage drug offender who had coughed in the direction of police officers, she knew exactly what was appropriate. Levi Marsden, 18, from Barnsley, was given a three-month custodial sentence.

Marsden had told the officers she did not have Covid, then she said she did and started coughing aggressively and repeatedly, refusing to cover her mouth and saying: ‘I hope you get it.’ She told the court she actually had a cold and was a carer for her father but Leong was unmoved.

‘The offences are so serious only custody can be justified,’ she said. Perhaps Marsden should have gone with a flying headbutt instead. Magistrates seem much more relaxed about those.

Nottingham Forest fan Robert Biggs assaulted Billy Sharp after Forest beat Sheffield United

On Thursday, Leong presided over the case of Robert Biggs, 30, from Ilkeston in Derbyshire, who, having joined the pitch invasion after Nottingham Forest defeated Sheffield United in their play-off semi-final, made a bee-line for striker Billy Sharp and with one blow, knocked him flat and left him needing stitches.

It could have been worse but Biggs did nothing to prevent that. Judge Leong says she even saw him weaving through the crowd to deliberately target Sharp. There was no doubt in her mind that this was not an accidental collision.

Her sentence? Six months. Yet she said immediately that Biggs would only serve half of that. So, in reality, three months. The same as for coughing at two police officers who were not reported by the courts to have contracted Covid. 

Biggs, 30, was arrested and has now been jailed for six months but is likely to only serve three

And Marsden sounds a nasty piece of work, like Biggs, but custodial sentences for coughing were the courts’ way of stopping the weaponisation of respiratory infection during the pandemic. Largely, it seems to have worked.

Yet pitch invasions, and violence towards players, is also on the rise. What is being done about this? Is it any wonder a man like Patrick Vieira, manager of Crystal Palace, chooses not to wait for the first blow, or for the courts to come to his rescue?

Maybe Sharp would have acted similarly had he seen Biggs coming, too. You couldn’t blame him. You could hardly blame anyone, who feared mob attack.

Assault on Tuesday, prison Thursday, at first seems like swift, summary justice, until one considers the damage that could have been done. Had Biggs not been so drunk that his head only half- connected with Sharp as he ran, it could have been a horrific assault.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the pitch there were accusations that Sheffield United player Oli McBurnie stamped on a Nottingham Forest fan who had fallen to the ground. The video footage is inconclusive — translation: all the Forest fans think he did it, all the Sheffield United fans think he didn’t — and Nottinghamshire Police are involved, but clearly this cannot carry on. 

Video footage also emerged of Oli McBurnie appearing to stamp on a Nottingham Forest fan

Many supporters entering the field are not just there to celebrate at the end of a defining match. They approach opposition players aggressively, they goad them, in those moments nobody can be sure what the next move will be.

And the players are supposed to take this, while trusting in police, stewards and later the magistrates to protect them? If police and stewards were in control, there wouldn’t be 10,000 people on the pitch.

If magistrates were interested in exemplary, statement sentences that might act as a deterrent, they would have done it by now.

On Biggs, the judge was swayed by the plea that his girlfriend would be unable to afford £1,000 a month for the mortgage without his £4,600 monthly salary as an electrical engineer. These are the sort of thoughts that perhaps cross a man’s mind before he storms a pitch and tries to headbutt an innocent bystander.

Every custodial sentence carries the potential for hardship, and if we always factored in the miscreants’ home life, nobody would ever go to jail.

Patrick Vieira faces a possible FA charge after kicking out at an Everton fan on the pitch

The understanding or kindness of Judge Leong has to be balanced with what is clearly a growing problem for football, and one that players and coaches apparently feel they have little choice but to resolve on their terms. 

Swindon players were also attacked at Port Vale on Thursday night. Punches were thrown. It’s unacceptable.

What might stop this? One year inside, maybe two. Certainly more than is prescribed for coughing. And if the courts won’t prevent it, then expect worse scenes, greater disorder, and one day a headbutt that hits the spot.

Anything bad that is not stopped is encouraged. And make no mistake, this is bad.

Judge Leong missed her opportunity this week, but we cannot continue like this. Unchecked, there is a wholly inevitable conclusion.

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