Boris Johnson has said he understands “people’s strength of feeling” about the ownership of football clubs and the anger which lay behind Sunday’s pitch invasion at Old Trafford.
The prime minister was responding to questions about the disruption which caused Manchester United’s Premier League game against Liverpool to be postponed and which has led to a police investigation.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have disruptive behaviour, demonstrations of that kind. But on the other hand, I do understand people’s strength of feeling,” he said during electoral campaigning in Hartlepool.
Johnson also attempted to link Britain’s withdrawal from the EU to the government’s stance on controversial plans for a European Super League. The plans had sparked anger among Manchester United fans and supporters of five other Premier League teams before the clubs pulled out.
“Thanks to the powers we have been able to secure with Brexit, which people voted for in Hartlepool, we can do things to make sure you don’t get a European Super League, and I don’t think that’s been widely enough understood,” he added.
Greater Manchester police have launched an investigation into Sunday’s events. The force said two officers were injured, with one suffering “life-changing” eye injuries from a “significant” slash wound to the face.
Stu Berry, the chairman of the Greater Manchester Police Federation, which represents the force’s rank-and-file officers, said on Monday one of the injured officers was a constable with around 20 years’ service. He said: “He is incredibly lucky not to have lost the sight in an eye … We are offering support to our injured colleague and will continue to do so as he recovers from his injuries.”
Fans broke into the stadium on Sunday and invaded the pitch in protest at the club’s owners, the Glazer family, while outside the ground bottles and barriers were thrown at police officers and horses.
While Manchester United was continuing to work with police to identify fans, PA Media said it understood the club was focusing its efforts on those who committed offences and that sanctions would not necessarily be applied to fans who merely entered the stadium or went on to the pitch.
“The club has no desire to see peaceful protesters punished, but will work with the police to identify those involved in criminal activity, and will also issue its own sanctions to any season ticket holder or member identified, per the published sanctions policy,” said a statement.
Under the club’s sanctions policy, damaging property or disorderly behaviour warrants a ban of one to six games, while abusive or aggressive behaviour towards staff, police or anyone else at work, or any other criminal activity can lead to indefinite suspension.
Speaking on Monday before Johnson’s comments, another member of the government also said the frustration felt by fans towards some football clubs had to be understood.
James Cleverly, a Foreign Office minister, said he could not condone the events at Old Trafford, but added: “We do need to understand the frustrations that fans have, not just with Manchester United, but with a number of clubs across the game.”
The postponement of the Premier League match added further uncertainty to United’s fixture list in a week when they are due to play the second leg of their Europa League semi-final with Roma, and is the most graphic illustration yet of the breakdown of trust between fans and owners.