I miss the days when a good old-fashioned pitch invasion marked the end of the football season

The whistle would blow and on everyone would come, in a stampede, while the players dashed for safety. Not any more.

It’s that moving time of the year when we tearfully bid farewell to another football season and another football season tearfully bids farewell to us in the only way it knows how: by sending the players back on to the pitch after their last home game to perform a “lap of appreciation”.

Or, to use the statutory adjective, a “traditional lap of appreciation” – traditional here referring to a practice that stretches back at least, ooh, seven or eight years now, but has its own set of customs and rituals, as nailed-down as Christmas.

For example, there’s the moment when the players re-emerge slowly from the dressing room in warm-down wear, often including complimentary slides (spa slippers, basically). There’s the ruminatively paced walk around the perimeter. There’s the presence, frequently, of small offspring in replica kit. And there’s the players’ expression of thanks to the crowd in the form of clapping above the head, or the more sustainable version – the clapping just off to one side of the face. No self-respecting traditional lap of appreciation will lack these things.

In common, no doubt, with practically every club everywhere, Aston Villa recently posted on their website notice of their intention to appreciate. “Dean Smith and his supporters would like to thank supporters for the tremendous backing they’ve provided the team with this season,” the announcement stated, “by completing a Lap of Appreciation at the conclusion of Sunday’s fixture.”

And why not? After a term of exemplary efforts, Villa have qualified for the Championship play-offs and could still end up in the Premier League next season. Yet how the club’s tune has changed from the same time in 2016. That was the season Villa exhausted two managers, won only three league matches, conceded 86 goals and were relegated. A lap of appreciation? Not that time. With the final home game looming miserably, the club consulted “supporter representatives” (according to its statement) and decided that “in the current circumstances”, such a moment of pageantry “would not be appropriate”.

This was an interesting scruple, and it seemed to rest on a small but critical misunderstanding about the difference between a “lap of appreciation” and a “lap of honour”. In the latter, gratitude and admiration are intended to flow from the supporters to the players, normally in the wake of their winning something. With a lap of appreciation, however, the gratitude is meant to go the other way, the players expressing their indebtedness to the fans. And what players could be more indebted, frankly, than those who had won only three games all year, conceded 86 goals and been relegated? Surely this was exactly the moment at which those long-suffering Aston Villa supporters deserved to have their patience acknowledged by a suitably chastened Rudy Gestede.

Still, let’s not ignore the lap’s founding purpose, which is essentially crowd control in disguise. Before such laps were a thing, supporters marked their release for the summer with a pitch invasion. The whistle would blow and on everyone would come, in a stampede, while the players dashed for safety. Not any more. As Aston Villa’s notice goes on to say: “The club want our fans to enjoy the experience and would therefore kindly like to remind supporters not to encroach the field of play [sic].”

Other clubs have been even more upfront about what’s going on here. QPR declared their intention to perform “a traditional lap of appreciation”, acknowledging that “the backing for the team has again been fantastic”. But the announcement quickly took a dark turn, warning that the ceremony would “NOT be able to take place if any fans attempt to enter the pitch at the end of the match” and that “any attempt to enter on to the playing area will be deemed a criminal offence that could lead to sanctions against individuals”. The notice concluded by thanking fans for their “co-operation and understanding”.

Carlisle United were crisper still. “We would like to request that all supporters remain in the stands for the completion of tomorrow’s game against Crawley Town. The players and coaching staff would like to complete a lap of appreciation to thank you for your support throughout the 2018/19 season but will only be able to do so if the pitch remains clear.” This stark message was underscored with cautionary references to “banning orders”, “criminal convictions” and “fines”.

Millwall manager Neil Harris knows the score. In 2018 he tweeted out a video to his club’s notoriously independent-minded supporters, acknowledging that pitch invasions and laps of appreciation were both, in their own way, “traditional”, yet pleading for calm. “Obviously, they can’t go together, the pitch invasion and the lap of honour,” Harris explained, adding that, to his mind, “the players… have earned the right to come around and reward you guys,” and to take the opportunity to “bring the children on, share that family time with them”.

Incredible to relate, Harris’s plangent appeal to the sanctity of family time was enough to curb the wilder, school’s-out instincts at Millwall. And if it can work there…  Either way, the people with the most to gain from laps of appreciation are clearly stewards and mounted police officers. Clubs use the moment of pageantry to muster what is, on the face of it, an unlikely threat: “If anybody sets so much as one foot on the pitch when this game ends, the players will not be coming out in flip-flops with their children.” It must say something about the general demeanour of football fans in the 21st century that this paper-thin ploy has been almost entirely successful, eliminating the pitch invasion, certainly from stadiums in the Premier League, and replacing it with something more… traditional. 

Giles Smith is a New Statesman columnist and previously wrote for the Times.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes