Pitch invader
The rate of pitch invasions are a growing concern.

The Football Association will not issue immediate punishments to clubs whose fans invade the pitch, despite the ugly scenes following Preston North End's win over Blackpool in the League Cup this week

An FA spokesperson told IBTimes UK that sanctions, such as fines or ground closures, would only be possible if an independent investigation "could prove that clubs were negligent", adding that such a finding is "rare".

The spokesperson added that, for pitch invasions, the FA does not have a fixed protocol and each incident must "be seen in context."

The issue of pitch invasions, and the wider spectre of hooliganism, was raised again on Monday night at Preston's Deepdale ground, where Tom Clarke's late headed winner for the home side sparked a pitch invasion at full-time.

Around 200 Preston fans invaded the pitch to celebrate as the Lilywhites dumped their local rivals out in the first round. Upon entering the field some supporters sought to antagonise their Blackpool counterparts in the Bill Shankly Kop, a situation which was soon defused by mounted police.

One on-pitch steward was accidently trampled on before being given the all-clear by medical staff and returning home, while another steward received treatment for injuries sustained while working in the away end. The FA are investigating.

'Context is key'

Pitch invasions are generally associated with end of season celebrations. Cardiff City, AFC Bournemouth and Gillingham, the champions of the respective Football League divisions last season all experienced pitch invasions upon clinching promotion.

Supporters can face prosecution and lengthy stadium bans should they be found guilty of entering the pitch, however, the stance is seemingly eased in moments of celebration.

An FA spokesperson told IBTimes UK: "With the powers that The FA have we can fine clubs, we can impose whole or partial grounds closures if we deem it to be a serious enough nature.

"There is no strict liability on this, the same as if there was crowd violence. It is for the investigation to prove that clubs were negligent in their approach. If The FA can prove there was we can take action but it is rare that that happens.

"We would have to find a club had been negligent following an investigation [before] we can impose any sanctions on that club.

"To suggest at the end of a season, when a game is finished, that The FA should start to impose sanctions on that basis is unreasonable.

"During the course of a season when incidents take place our job is to establish what went on and that those who went on the pitch are identified. The incidents have to be seen in context."

A Football Supporters' Federation spokesperson added: "Pitch invasions are illegal so fans would be advised not to get involved - you could end up with a three-year banning order and a criminal record.

"But the FA is right in saying that pitch invasions have to be viewed in context. There's a clear difference between fans entering the field of play to goad rival supporters in a heated fixtures as opposed to end of season "celebratory" affairs. Club rivalries and the importance of a game to either set of fans can change the dynamics considerably.

"There's no room for complacency but individual incidents should not cloud the bigger picture, which is positive. The Home Office's own statistics show that arrests are down by a quarter. Policing minister Damian Green said they were at an all-time low with one arrest for every 15,782 spectators."

Under investigation regarding the events on Monday evening, Preston say they would expect an objection from The FA regardless of the circumstances behind an encroachment.

Preston told IBTimes UK: "You would still receive a letter from The FA asking you for your observations irrelevant of when the encroachment is. If anyone encroaches on the pitch full stop you will get a letter from The FA for your observations. As far as the regulations are understood, Monday night is no different."

"This incursion onto the field of play is totally unacceptable and is condemned by everyone connected with Preston North End Football Club," a North End statement earlier read. "In reiterating that any invasion of the pitch is unacceptable, we would like to commend the police and stewards for responding in a timely and appropriate manner."

West Ham United were fined £115,000 in 2009 after being found guilty by The FA of four fan-related offences during their League Cup tie against Millwall including "failure to ensure their supporters didn't enter the field of play".

Professional footballers' safety was thrust into the news regularly last season with Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland,Wycombe Wanderers loanee Jordan Archer and Kidderminster Harriers' Lee Vaughan all subjected to individual attacks from supporters.

During the opening weekend of the Football League season dozens of visiting Coventry City fans caused a three-minute stoppage to their game against Crawley Town after a mini-invasion after their opponents had taken a 2-0 first half lead.

Blackpool manager Paul Ince has called on the game's authorities to ensure the protection of players against future pitch invasions.

"There were more than a few idiots who ran onto the pitch and this is a problem," the former Manchester United midfielder told BBC Sport following his side's 1-0 defeat on Monday. "This is the problem with football.

"We've seen enough incidents in football where fans are allowed to run on the pitch. We've seen goalkeepers get hit we've seen players get punched; when are we going to learn?

"We spend so much time worrying about referees, when are we going to learn about protecting players on the pitch?

"When you've got 200 Preston fans on the pitch and my players are still on the pitch, who knows? There is no control and what is it going to take, for someone to be stabbed before we actually wake up and smell the coffee.

"That's something we need to look at but we don't because we have to wait for something to really happen before we say 'let's do something about it'.

"There have been enough incidents in the last two or three years where we should be seriously getting our heads together and doing something about it."

The Professional Footballers' Association were unavailable for comment but chief executive Gordon Taylor said in January 2011 The FA would risk returning football to the dark ages of the 1980s should they not deal with the growing problem.

"You don't want that to happen, and be thinking about getting back to the problems of the 80s," Taylor said.

The behaviour of fans was again thrust into the limelight during last season's FA Cup semi-final between Millwall and Wigan Athletic at Wembley where supporters in the Lions end were seen fighting each other, sparking suggestions hooliganism was returning to football.