Grealish, Smalling & Tavernier: Phil Neville on what needs to happen to stop on-pitch attacks

Match of the Day 2 analysis

We have reached the point where banning individual fans for going on the pitch is simply not enough of a punishment.

It cannot be a sufficient deterrent, because it keeps on happening, and my worry is that it is going to take an incident where a player is stabbed or seriously hurt before things change.

Player safety was a huge concern of mine even before this weekend's incidents involving supporters at St Andrew's,the Emirates and Easter Road.

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What has happened in the past few days has highlighted the size of the problem, but I actually think things have been getting worse for a while and the situation should be a major concern for the clubs and the governing bodies.

Drastic action is needed - either through points deductions or by emptying stadiums and making clubs play behind closed doors.

I also think players and managers need to make a stand.

If you look at what happened in Sunday's Birmingham derby, where a man wearing a Birmingham jacket ran on the pitch and attacked Aston Villa's Jack Grealish, he and his team-mates handled what was a horrendous incident unbelievably well.

Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish is attacked by a fan during the derby at Birmingham City
Jack Grealish was attacked from behind by a man who entered the pitch from the home section at St Andrew's

Grealish ended up scoring the winner, but I would have totally understood if the entire Villa team had walked off and refused to carry on.

As a manager myself, I am wondering if there comes a time when you decide enough is enough and your players cannot continue in a game because they are not safe to do so.

Nobody wants to see teams walking off but I think we have to remember the safety of players is paramount in all this.

I don't want to over-dramatise things, but everyone remembers what happened to the tennis player Monica Seles, who was stabbed on court during a match in 1993.

We need to start protecting players properly because all it takes is for one of these people who get on the pitch to have a knife or other weapon and it will be a footballer who is badly hurt next time.

'I am worried about the way football is going'

Arsenal v Tottenham at the Emirates
The banana skin is thrown in the direction of the Arsenal players

I have seen many incidents this season that worry me about the way football is going, and we need to nip things in the bud before they get any worse.

In the past few months, there have been displays of racism at grounds, with a banana thrown towards Arsenal players after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had scored in the north London derby and derogatory chanting about the Pakistani community during the Millwall versus Everton FA Cup tie.

Homophobic abuse is a problem too, and now we have had these attacks and confrontations from people running on to the pitch.

I think all of it is totally unacceptable but I keep hearing that it is all part and parcel of the game, or even worse that the players have brought it on themselves or should tolerate it because they get paid a lot of money, which is possibly the biggest insult of all.

It has got to stop but very little seems to be done about it, which is probably why things appear to be escalating. I am massively passionate about it because I have seen the effect it has on people's lives.

One of my players in the England women team, Karen Carney, received death threats on social media last year. It was disgusting, but that just seems to be seen as part of being a public figure these days, whether you are male or female.

Karen Carney
Karen Carney received rape and death threats after Chelsea's Champions League win over Fiorentina in October

People don't actually look at the root of the problem, they just say: 'Why go on social media then?'

It has now become acceptable in our society to treat people like that, and not just professional footballers either.

You are expected to just put up with it, which sickens and saddens me. We have got a lot of problems in this country at the moment, but I think that is probably one of the biggest.

'Stadiums seem the safest place in the world, until it happens to you'

Chris Smalling was shoved by a fan during Manchester United's defeat by Arsenal
Chris Smalling was shoved by a fan shortly after Arsenal had scored their second goal in their 2-0 win over Manchester United

If you can go on your laptop and dish out abuse and death threats and think that is OK, then it is not surprising to see it happening in our stadiums too.

As a player, you don't really quantify what is happening in incidents like the ones we saw at the weekend as you are in the zone and you are just focused on playing the game.

That is what Grealish and Manchester United defender Chris Smalling will have done on Sunday, and Rangers captain James Tavernier up in Scotland on Friday too.

They probably did not fully understand what had happened to them until they got home and watched the footage, found out their families were petrified at the time, and thought 'wow, that could have been extremely serious'.

As a player you think a football pitch is the safest place in the world, until something similar happens to you.

It happened to me when I was playing for Everton in a Merseyside derby in 2008. I was taking a throw at Anfield, and I got a punch in the back from a Liverpool fan.

As I say, at the time I thought nothing of it and I just got on with the game. It was not until I came off afterwards that I thought that jab in the back could have been something else - and he could have had a weapon in his hand.

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'Time to start protecting players, especially when they are on the pitch'

That incident at Anfield was more than a decade ago, but things are a lot worse now. I think it is clear the issues I have spoken about are not just going to go away.

It is time to start protecting players, especially when they are on the pitch.

I don't want to see fences back up at football grounds as they were in the dark days of the 1980s, but there needs to be a way to control the fans and it is clear just banning one person from the stadium is not having an effect.

Everyone needs to sit down together - the game's governing bodies, the players' union, supporters' groups and the authorities - and accept things have to change.

If they don't, I am seriously worried about what will happen next.

Phil Neville was speaking to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan.

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