“Oh what a night!” The exclamation that begins the recently composed Norwich song – it goes on to laud “Simeon Jackson wearing number 10, Fratton Park at the Norwich end”, revelling in the joy of that Spring evening when the Canaries regained their place in the Premier League – is the perfect epithet to describe the exultant joy that accompanied the victory over Portsmouth.
The tension among Norwich fans who’d made the journey to the South coast was palpable.
This had the potential to be the most glorious of evenings. The culmination of two joyous seasons that followed one of the lowest ebbs in Norwich’s recent past. We were on the cusp of returning to where many felt we belonged, having done so as a result of some truly scintillating displays.
This being Norwich – or rather, this being football – it never does to take things for granted, though, and it still took Jackson’s header hitting the back of the net for the nerves of those in yellow to subside.
After all, it’s the hope that gets you.
Come the final whistle of the game and the cumulative effect of such anticipation was too much to contain for many City supporters.
Spilling on to the pitch in a veritable explosion of green and yellow, fans joined players in celebrating promotion. We had all – team and supporters – shared this journey together and now we were going to celebrate together.
It was one of the crowning moments of a truly memorable evening. An exuberant, jubilant, shared moment of celebration. One to be savoured, as it makes the many downturns of a football supporter’s existence seem insignificant and worth suffering through.
Not once during that joyous melee was the spectre of hooliganism mentioned. Over the following days, no journalists constructed think pieces about the game returning to anything even vaguely resembling a “dark day.” Just as at Gresty Road following our previous promotion, away fans spilling on to the playing surface in celebration was viewed more as a quaint, adorable action, rather than anything remotely reminiscent of the frequently uneasy, often violent atmosphere that permeated grounds across the country during the 1970s and 80s.
It was somewhat surprising, then, to see so many football commentators drawing parallels between the pitch invasion that followed Aston Villa’s recent FA Cup victory over local rivals West Brom and the worst of the country’s past hooligan crimes.
I am fully aware that Norwich fans have been endowed with an immense feeling of schadenfreude towards those from Birmingham of the claret and blue persuasion, but it is still worth pointing out just how retched Villa have been this season.
Setting new club and league records for time without a goal and games without a win have accompanied a thoroughly turgid period, overseen, ironically, by the manager who masterminded the success that culminated in that glorious night in Hampshire.
Villa fans have been put through the mill recently and so a hard-fought victory in a local derby – one that also resulted in an upcoming trip to Wembley – was always going to be greeted by scenes of wild celebration, generously laced with relief.
Supporters invading pitches have accompanied such victories for so long that they feel as if they have always been a part of such occasions.
For decades, the fans of small sides – having just seen their team produce an upset of the normal footballing order by defeating an established big side in a cup match – have flocked on to the field upon hearing the referee call time on proceedings, in order to express their immense joy at what has just unfolded in front of them.
Seminal FA Cup moments are not the only occasions to have lead to a wave of fans cascading across the pitch, either. Successful attempts to stave off relegation; the clinching of automatic promotion to the league above; and success in a playoff semi-final have all drawn paying supporters down from the stands and on to the rectangular green expanse.
It is as if the grass is a magnet, or a metaphorical finish line to proceedings. Until you are down on it, doing a foolish jig or taking a blurry photograph, it’s not quite real.
The way in which the events at Villa Park were covered by swathes of the football media, however, one would be forgiven that a full-scale riot had taken place. On closer inspection, though, the Old Den this certainly was not.
This is not to trivialise the actions of a minority of fans that were beyond the pale.
Throwing missiles of any sort is moronic in the extreme, and those Villa supporters who goaded and harangued the defeated players of West Brom would have been better advised just celebrating their own team’s moment of glory, but the only thing that made it a “dark day for football” was the gloomy early evening Birmingham weather.
Sports journalists are paid to provide opinion on events as much as they are employed to describe those events in an engaging and informed way. However, it is startling that despite making a healthy living from writing about football, so many writers and commentators appear to have little regard or understanding for the sport’s culture and tradition.
In black and white terms, entering the field of play is an offence regardless of when it occurs. Doing so during a match is almost always the act of a generally brainless individual, but done at the full-time whistle and it can be a wonderfully cathartic, celebratory action.
Deeming such scenes as the act of deplorable yobs missed the countless families, children and elderly supporters who took an opportunity to hop over the advertising hoardings in order to celebrate a rare positive match for their side.
The continued sanitisation of the game may be continuing unchecked in many areas, but it would be a shame if the humble pitch invasion was eradicated altogether.
It is time that some journalists put aside the chance for an eye-catching headline and gained some perspective. One wonders whether such a pitch invasion carried out by fans of a smaller team would have drawn such stinging criticism? Maybe Villa are just as unpopular with the national football writers as they are with some Norwich fans?
Regardless, pitch invasions are a glorious – if slightly mischievous – way to celebrate your team’s success. I can only hope that next time Norwich do something that warrants one, I’m not castigated for being a hooligan, because you better believe I’ll be on that pitch again, waving a scarf and trying to hug any Norwich player within ten metres.