Rising soccer star Jack Grealish had just won his team a corner as he walked, as all good attackers do, towards the penalty box to await the ball 10 minutes into a crucial derby clash.
But what happened to the 23-year-old Aston Villa winger in the heated match against Birmingham City earlier this week, would stun everyone who saw it.
A cowardly Birmingham City fan wearing a dark coat and cap leapt out of the stand, snuck up behind Grealish and swung a right hand into the side of his head.
There was sweet revenge for Grealish, who picked himself up and scored the only goal of the game to win it for Villa — but many in Britain are concerned that the ugly incident points to a much bigger, deeper-rooted issue with British society.
Football writer and author Jonathan Wilson pointed to other shameful violent, racist and anti-Semitic incidents in British football over the past decade — and said the issues playing out on the nation’s football pitches are far bigger than sporting rivalries.
“This is the country Britain is becoming, a place where cowards run up behind people wearing the wrong-coloured shirt and punch them,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated. “This is a symptom of a society that is grievously ill. Britain is rotting from the head.”
And, just hours after Grealish was attacked, a second pitch invasion took place at the Emirates Stadium in North London where Arsenal beat Manchester United 2-0.
A hooded man ran onto the pitch and pushed up against United defender Chris Smalling moments after Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a penalty.
Wilson wrote that Britain has become a hostile place, pointing to statistics that show knife crime is up almost two-thirds on five years ago while hate crime has more than doubled in the past five years.
While, he said the reasons for this are unclear, he highlighted two issues which he believes have made matters worse — cuts to public services and the Brexit vote.
“Education and health are in crisis, there have been major cutbacks to the police and social services, welfare and benefits have been slashed and the result is fury and hopelessness with a stretched and demotivated police force that is struggling to cope,” he wrote.
He added that the Brexit vote in 2016, unleashed an “unprecedented right-wing and nationalist rhetoric” which has just added fuel to the fire.
Knife violence has rocketed in the UK since 2010, especially in London where the murder rate has overtaken New York City — but the violence isn’t being contained in the capital.
There were 285 knife homicides in England and Wales from April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018, the highest number since comparable records began in 1946.
The number of people admitted to hospitals with blade injuries rose 8 per cent from the year before.
Knives are the most common weapon used in slayings in the UK, where guns are tightly restricted. About 40 per cent of murder victims were stabbed to death last year, while only 4 per cent were shot.
Both the causes of the crime wave and its solutions are hotly disputed. Police leaders and opposition politicians blame years of public spending cuts by the Conservative-led government, which has slashed funding to police by almost 20 per cent since 2010, leading to 20,000 fewer officers on the streets. Government cuts to local budgets also mean there are fewer youth programs and after-school activities and worse mental health services for young people in many areas.
“Of course there’s a link between youth centres having massive cuts, mental health services having massive cuts, schools having massive cuts, children’s services having massive cuts and young people having less constructive things to do,” said London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of the opposition Labour Party.
“The government needs to wake up, reverse these cuts to our police - but also our preventive services too,” he told Sky News.
However, government denies austerity is to blame. PM Theresa May insisted Monday there was “no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers.”
The other elephant in the room is Brexit.
Hate crime offences recorded by the police rose by 17 per cent to 94,098 in the 12 months to March, figures for England and Wales show — which is an increase of increase of 123 per cent since 2012-13.
The UK Home Office said there were “spikes in hate crime following certain events such as the EU referendum and the terrorist attacks in 2017”.
Labour MP David Lammy, who is part of the pro-Europe Best for Britain campaign, blamed the rise in hate crime on the rhetoric of Brexiters.
“The extent to which hate crimes have risen in recent years is shameful. It comes from the very top. Divisive, xenophobic rhetoric from politicians and leaders trickles down into abuse and violence on our streets,” he told The Guardian.
The Home Office said the increase was largely driven by improvements in the way hate crimes are recorded by police.
However, Wilson said anyone who has been to a football match in Britain regularly over the past decade “will have seen a rise in instances of violence and racism”.
“Even during the worst period of hooliganism in Britain, though, during the seventies and eighties, it was rare for players to be attacked,” he wrote.