London: Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was punched by a Birmingham fan in a shocking incident during Sunday’s Championship clash while hours later a pitch invader was arrested after appearing to confront Manchester United’s Chris Smalling at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.
Grealish did have the consolation of scoring the decisive goal in Villa’s 1-0 win over their bitter rivals but there was no such compensation for Smalling, with United losing 2-0 to the Gunners in the Premier League as they suffered their first domestic defeat under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Grealish was in the Birmingham penalty area in the 10th minute when a man ran on to the field and threw a punch from behind at the Villa captain.
The blow caught the midfielder on the side of the head and sent him sprawling to the turf.
The intruder was quickly restrained by a steward as Villa players including Tammy Abraham and Glenn Whelan rushed to Grealish’s defence.
After the fan had been shoved over, he was eventually led away by police, defiantly blowing kisses to the crowd.
A visibly furious Grealish was helped to his feet and was able to continue playing once order was restored at Birmingham’s St Andrew’s stadium.
Grealish produced the perfect response to the assault by scoring the only goal if the game in the 70th minute.
He then jumped into the stand to celebrate with the Villa fans behind the goal and was booked as a result.
“I was walking into position and then just felt a whack around the side of the face,” Grealish said.
“Obviously there’s rivalry and stuff in football but I don’t think there’s any place for that really.”
West Midlands Police confirmed the Birmingham supporter had been arrested, as the Blues apologised for the incident.
“We deplore the behaviour of the individual who committed this act and rest assured he will be banned from St. Andrew’s for life,” a Birmingham statement said.
“What happened has no place in football or society. Jack is a Birmingham lad and regardless of club allegiance should not have been subjected to this - there are no excuses.”
Sunday also saw a worrying incident at the Emirates, the home ground of Arsenal.
After a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty made it 2-0 to Arsenal - the eventual result - a lone fan ran onto the field to celebrate with the players and appeared to make contact with United defender Smalling.
The Gunners later announced the person concerned had been arrested and would likely face a lifetime ban from the Emirates as they have a “zero tolerance” approach to such incidents.
“(There) shouldn’t be a place that someone runs onto the pitch,” said United caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer following his first domestic defeat in charge of the English giants.
“We just have to make sure we play football and they (the fans) watch football.”
It was a view shared by Arsenal boss Unai Emery, who said: “I don’t want that.”
Sunday’s incidents followed several recent episodes of hooliganism, including coin attacks on players and managers, in Scottish football.