Football: Fan arrested after hitting linesman

Portsmouth 1 Foster 18 Sheffield United 1 Knight og 32 Attendanc e: 12,003
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IT NEVER rains but it pours at Portsmouth. With Alan Ball's return as manager and takeover talks involving wealthy investors reopening, yesterday was supposed to herald the start of better things for the First Division's bottom club.

Instead came an incident that sickened all inside Fratton Park and ended with an assistant referee, Edward Martin, from Somerset, in hospital following an assault by a Sheffield United fan. Last night he was said to be recovering satisfactorily from a blow to the head, for which the fan was quickly apprehended and arrested. The Football Association said they would be awaiting the referee's report before deciding on their next step.

With a minute of the first half left, the Sheffield United goalkeeper, Simon Tracey, rushed from his goal to intercept the onrushing Sammy Igoe, but handled the ball outside his area and brought the Portsmouth player down. After consulting Mr Martin, the referee, Mark Halsey, sent off Tracey, fuelling the visiting fans' anger.

Mr Martin was next seen prone and unconscious by a touchline near the Sheffield United fans at the Milton Road end, from which the fan had emerged. It took five minutes of treatment before he could be lifted on to a stretcher and taken to hospital. He regained consciousness in the ambulance. A policeman took away as evidence a photographer's camera stand.

"This man came running along the touchline and threw a punch," said the referee, Mr Halsey, after the game. "I was just numb. This is quite unbelievable. I have never seen anything like it in all my years in football. I will put everything that happened today in my report to the FA and it will be for them to decide what happens."

The FA's director of public affairs, David Davies, said last night: "Clearly we are shocked to hear about this. We understand a man has been arrested in connection with it and are encouraged by the prompt action in this matter. As for any action in footballing terms, we will be awaiting the regular reports we receive before proceeding."

Both managers were united in their condemnation of the fan. "It was one of the worst scenes I have seen in my career," Ball said. "We were all in shock. Things like this shouldn't happen in English football. He should be banned for ever."

And locked up, added his Sheffield United counterpart, Nigel Spackman. "Everybody at Sheffield United, including proper supporters, can only apologise. We don't want him at Bramall Lane."

Now the FA must decide if Portsmouth took all reasonable precautions in their match arrangements, and if Sheffield are in any way responsible.

"The FA have sent observers here and have been entirely satisfied with the arrangements," Portsmouth's safety officer, Dave Watson, said. "But if you take down fences and gates you are going to get supporters who run on occasionally." He revealed that to back up the 180 stewards on duty, only one police liaison officer, as is standard, was on duty inside the ground. When the trouble erupted, he called for several more, who soon appeared.

All of which rendered other events yesterday almost meaningless, perhaps the announcement that the chairman, Martin Gregory, and the American consortium interested in buying the club are talking again being the most significant.

Former rock musician Brian Howe and his partner, Vince Wolanin, were reported to have pulled out of the deal in midweek, the sticking point apparently that Wolanin wants Gregory to pay off the club's debts from the proceeds of the sale; Gregory wants pounds 3.25m for the club and the consortium to pay the debt, increasing by pounds 150,000 per month. Although there is likely to be further argument, it seems that Gregory will have to sell eventually, with likely purchasers hardly forming a queue down the A3.

All the while, the Portsmouth director Terry Brady has been trying to bring the two factions together and Gregory has invited Howe and Wolanin to next Saturday's home match against Nottingham Forest for negotiations. Brady should be used to football as soap opera; his daughter, Karren, is managing director of Birmingham City. It was he who recruited Ball.

They remember him at Fratton Park as the man who led them up to the old First Division in the mid-Eighties, rather than a struggler with Stoke, Southampton and Manchester City, and for that he was warmly welcomed yesterday. He acknowledged with just a simple wave. There was business to be done and it was soon evident in Pompey's aggressive approach.

They grabbed a lead when Craig Foster turned home a cross by Steve Claridge, a Pompey lad on loan from Leicester, and might have added to it, but typical of what happens to a side in their position, they then conceded a soft equaliser, Alan Knight colliding with a post and carrying Lee Sandford's cross over his line.

After the break they tested Tracey's replacement, Sean Derry, only once, a shot by Matthias Svensson being turned round a post. In fact, 10-man United held out comfortably enough for a point.

"They look very short of confidence," said Ball of his new team. "But that goes with all the kicks in the teeth they have had over the last few months." Yesterday, they had another.