LONDON, December 2 – English football chiefs pressed for the "stiffest available sanctions" for those involved in a pitch invasion following Birmingham's League Cup win over Aston Villa on Wednesday that threatened to tarnish their bid to stage the 2018 World Cup.
Just a day before delegates from world football governing body FIFA vote in Zurich on both the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts, there was a scene that Birmingham boss Alex McLeish said was a return to the "Dark Ages" of the 1980s when English football was synonymous with fan violence.
It was a further public relations problem for England bid bosses after the fall-out from a BBC television ‘Panorama’ programme broadcast Monday that made allegations of corruption within FIFA.
Police and stewards could not stop some thousand fans pouring onto the pitch at St Andrew’s following Birmingham’s 2-1 quarter-final win over city rivals Villa, with missiles being thrown.
The invading Birmingham fans confronted Villa supporters in the Gil Merrick Stand, with dozens of seats ripped up and a flare was thrown back and forth between the rival groups.
England’s governing Football Association (FA) tried to limit any damage to the World Cup bid by making it clear shortly afterwards that trouble-makers could expect to face severe punishment.
"We wholly condemn the actions of any individuals who have been involved in the scenes of disorder at St Andrew’s this evening," an FA spokesman said.
"The FA abhors acts of violent behaviour and we urge the clubs and authorities to identify any individuals involved in disorder, and impose the stiffest available sanctions, including banning orders.
"The FA will fully investigate the matter in conjunction with the appropriate authorities.
"The whole of English football has worked hard to eradicate scenes of disorder from our game, with Home Office (Interior Ministry) figures this week showing a significant drop in arrests at the many thousands of football matches held every week, the majority of which still pass trouble free."
A Birmingham statement added: "Birmingham City Football Club is disappointed with scenes at St Andrew’s following the Carling (League) Cup tie against Aston Villa.
"The club does not tolerate the breaking of any stadium rules and will conduct a full investigation in conjunction with the FA and police and take appropriate action.
"A meeting will be held at St Andrew’s on Thursday to investigate the matter further."
McLeish lamented the invasion but said he did not think it would alter the outcome of Thursday’s vote
"Fans shouldn’t come on to the pitch at any time," he told Sky Sports.
"I don’t think that will affect the World Cup bid, I’m sure that’s already decided, and let’s hope England gets it because it deserves it.
"It doesn’t look good though, when you see fans running on the pitch like that and carrying on. It takes us back to the Dark Ages," the Scot added.
Earlier, Nikola Zagic’s goal six minutes from time settled the tie and gave Birmingham their first derby win for five-and-a-half years after Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor had cancelled out an early Sebastian Larsson penalty.
In Wednesday’s other quarter-final, under-fire manager Roy Keane guided second-tier Ipswich to a 1-0 win over Premier League side West Brom at Portman Road thanks to Grant Leadbitter’s second-half penalty.
Birmingham will now play West Ham, 4-0 conquerors of holders Manchester United on Tuesday, in a two-legged semi-final next month when Ipswich will face Arsenal after the Gunners 2-0 win over Wigan.
Ipswich are the last side from outside the Premier League left in the tournament and Keane, whose side came into this match on the back of a 4-1 league loss to local rivals Norwich, said: "I am more pleased for other people, it is all about the players and the supporters.
"It is not about my feelings…we have let the supporters down and (tonight) we have given them something to shout about," the former Manchester United midfielder added.