by Richard Brook
There were shocking scenes at Hillsborough tonight as Sheffield Wednesday were held to a draw, at home to Leeds United, and unfortunately yet again, in this week that has included John Terry deciding not to appeal the FA’s decision regarding his remark to Anton Ferdinand, Ashley Cole being fined for his twitter attack on the FA and Danny Rose being racially abused on international duty, the talking point of this match had nothing to do with football.
Wednesday just shaded the match, but cannot begrudge Michael Tonge’s spectacular 77th minute equaliser too much, although they will point back to striker Luciano Becchio tipping the ball out for a corner with clear use of his hand that should undeniably have resulted in a penalty. As Tonge’s long shot arced around the athletic dive of Owls keeper, Chris Kirkland the television cameras followed, the former Sheffield United man as he ran past the Wednesday supporters with both hands cupped to his ears. The gesture appears confrontational and designed to whip up a crowd, in which certain sections of both sets of supporters already appeared somewhat fractious. The camera’s returned to the Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper, prostrate on the floor apparently injured.
There were seconds of uncertainty as to how this happened. Kirkland’s dive was a good leap that came within a whisker of preventing the equaliser, but he did not collide with the post or anything else.
Then came the television replays, to demonstrate the truth of what had happened. Some people – I refuse to call them Leeds supporters – who had been sat amongst the travelling fans, had greeted Tonge’s equaliser by invading the pitch one amongst their number had come around the blind side of Kirkland’s goal and had hit the one time England goalkeeper in the face, as he puffed his cheeks wryly at having conceded the equaliser. It was a disgusting display of cowardice from Kirkland’s assailant, as the Wednesday player clearly had not the faintest idea that he was there before he launched his attack. The culprit then ran back into the stand laughing, and was greeted by smiles and congratulations by some of those around him. Kirkland required lengthy treatment, and five minutes of injury time was added on after the 90 minute mark.
Before I even began writing this article, I heard the reactions of some of Leeds genuine supporters, who had contacted the national media to decry this ridiculous behaviour. One Leeds fan described Kirkland’s attacker as belonging in prison. Behaviour of this kind, on the streets, would certainly be treated as a criminal matter.
From the other side of the fence I know the pain of the true Leeds fans. When something like this happens the whole club, and fan-base, are automatically implicated. As a Wednesday fan I would rather not remember our final day relegation to League One in 2010, but I do. I also remember people who were seated at the other end of Hillsborough, amongst Owls fans, though again I would not class them as such, running from the Kop to attack the Crystal Palace players who had earned the draw that sealed our fate that year. All clubs have their share of idiots and when something like this happens, too often we all get tarred with the same brush.
In 1995, former Wednesday goalkeeper, Kevin Pressman was confronted by pitch invaders at Millwall’s New Den, during a League Cup tie. One of the invaders allegedly confronted Pressman, with a death threat. The keeper claiming that the words used were: “You are a dead man! You will never leave this ground alive”. Millwall acted swiftly to issue life bans to those who were involved in the invasion amid fears of a sanction involving ground closure being imposed upon them following an attack on then Derby County goalkeeper Michael Taylor 16 months prior to this incident. Wednesday went on to win the match and Pressman is Millwall’s current goalkeeping coach, and so it transpires has left the ground more often than the banned aggressors since the incident.
It is to be hoped that Leeds United Football Club, The FA and The Police will pursue the Kirkland’s attacker to their fullest capability. A view that to his immense credit is shared by Leeds United boss Neil Warnock, who as an avid Sheffield United fan, and regular Hillsborough pantomime villain, owes Wednesday no allegiance. Warnock described himself as “embarrassed” to be the manager and further stated; “I thought it was an absolute disgrace. They should get the guy, prosecute him, put him in prison”. The Leeds boss continued, “I’m not proud to be Leeds manager when I see that. I don’t mind the atmosphere – there’s been elbows flying – but to see things like that on the field of play. I’m embarrassed”.
Wednesday manager Dave Jones was angered by the Kirkland incident and by the Leeds fans chants that were directed at Jones himself, regarding allegations of which Jones was cleared in 1999. Jones stated “They [Leeds fans] should be banned from every away ground now… They are vile animals”. Jones compared their chanting to the high profile racist chanting that has not been far away from football headlines in recent months and went on, “They should be punished. I’ve had it for 12 years and it is just upsetting that they are able to do it”. The Owls boss continued “The authorities have to look at it and sort it… we should be talking about the football.
Leeds United were quick to release a statement in which they “publicly apologised” for and “condemned” the attack on Chris Kirkland, and stressed their full co-operation with police and football’s authorities regarding identifying and bringing the culprit to justice. Pertinently the statement concluded; “After the week football has endured there is no place for this type of behaviour and the majority of Leeds supporters will be ashamed of [the individual’s] actions”.
It is to be imagined that there will be little difficulty in identifying the culprit as the television cameras displayed very clear pictures of his face. The person in question might have been stone cold sober but he might yet find there is a pretty severe hangover from his actions this evening. Will he wear his smile so proudly then?