Nottingham Forest have finally been punished for the post-match pitch invasion that saw Sheffield United skipper Billy Sharp violently assaulted by a supporter - almost a year to the day since it happened.
Twelve months ago tomorrow United’s play-off hopes were dashed by a penalty shoot-out defeat to eventual winners Forest at the City Ground, which prompted thousands of Forest fans to invade the pitch.
One, Robert Biggs, made a beeline for Sharp on the touchline and headbutted him, later being jailed for six weeks. Forest were charged with a breach of FA Rule E20, about controlling their supporters, and initially denied it before changing their plea and admitting one of four issues raised by the FA.
After partially admitting the charge Forest have been fined £50,000, with £25,000 suspended until the end of next season provided there is no further breach of the rule.
An FA statement read: “The FA charged Nottingham Forest FC with failing to ensure that its spectators – and all persons purporting to be its supporters or followers – conducted themselves in an orderly fashion and refrained from using threatening and/or violent behaviour whilst encroaching onto the pitch following the final whistle.”
Written reasons for the fine released by the FA described the post-match pitch invasion as “chaos”. “Many (the estimated number is in the thousands) of supporters flooded onto the pitch in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable mass,” the disciplinary commission found.
“The crowd was not wholly good natured. The video footage shows a Nottingham Forest supporter run half the length of the pitch to the Sheffield United technical area, where he head-butted Billy Sharp ... knocking him to the ground.
“The video footage reveals an unprovoked, serious physical assault. That assault was made possible by a failure to protect the tunnel and technical areas with a sufficient cordon of stewards. With exception of the assault on Mr Sharp the nature of the invasion was generally celebratory, but the number of supporters involved was significant and was uncontrolled.
“The stewards and the Police were unable to clear the crowd from the pitch for some 15 minutes. On the other hand (and with the exception of the assault on Mr Sharp) the stewards successfully protected the Sheffield United players and supporters.”
The FA summarised the charge against Forest into four issues: an insufficient number of stewards, inappropriate deployment of stewards to prevent the mass pitch invasion, a failure to protect tunnel and technical areas and a failure screen for pyrotechnics.
Forest only accepted the third point, failing to protect tunnel and technical areas with Alan Bexon, Forest’s head of operations and the safety officer at the match, appearing to lay some of the blame at United boss Paul Heckingbottom’s door in a letter quoted in the written submissions.
“During the game a number of incidents involving the Sheffield United manager appeared to raise the tensions,” Bexon wrote. “When Forest scored the opening goal he kicked an item thought to be a water bottle, into the crowd and a further incident involving Forest’s Djed Spence occurred for which he was booked.”
An email quoted in the findings, sent by the EFL’s head of security and safety operations Robert Eastwood, saw him estimate that 6,000 Forest fans were on the pitch after the game and despite describing the “serious assault” on Billy “Sharpe” [sic], goes on to add that the “the priority at the time was to prevent the two sets of spectators from a confrontation, whilst protecting the players and match officials from harm” and that Forest, “working alongside the police, successfully delivered these aspects.”
Bexon accepted that the tunnel and technical areas had not been properly secured, that the stewards responsible failed to carry out what had been expected of them, and that the attack on Sharp was a consequence of that failure.
The FA’s case on the first two issues - an insufficient number of stewards and inappropriate deployment of stewards to prevent the mass pitch invasion - was not upheld, and the fourth on pyrotechnics was not proceeded with by the FA.
The commission admitted it would have imposed a lesser fine without the assault on Sharp and suspended half of the £50,000 penalty in light of what it described as “substantial mitigation” from Forest’s defence. Forest were also ordered to pay the regulatory commission’s costs of the proceedings.