Crusaders goalkeeper Sean O'Neill feels young Warrenpoint Town stopper Mark Byrne should be handed the opportunity to learn from his "mistake" and rebuild his career.
eaview stopper O'Neill has been subjected to verbal abuse from supporters throughout his career in the Irish League, some of which has been of a sectarian nature.
And in one unsavoury episode he almost came to blows with a Coleraine fan after a spitting incident.
Byrne (19) has received a three match ban for violent conduct following his involvement in the brawl near the end of the Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United at Milltown on Saturday.
But the Irish FA are likely to dish out further punishment to the teenager when their Disciplinary Committee meets this month to discuss the incident.
There has been claim and counter claim since the chaotic scenes, with Warrenpoint Town chairman Connaire McGreevy saying Byrne was "physically assaulted" and the subject of "sectarian verbal abuse".
Ballymena United hit back on Tuesday, stating they were unaware of "any evidence or reference to sectarian abuse directed at the keeper other than the allegation from Warrenpoint".
O'Neill expects Byrne to be punished but he has rubbished calls for him to be banned from playing in the Irish League again.
"I think the goalkeeper has reacted in the wrong way," said O'Neill, who spent five years with the Sky Blues.
"Fans can give abuse but he has jumped the fence and he's made a mistake. He's a young lad and we have all made mistakes, myself included. He will learn from it.
"I'm guessing he will get a significant ban but I read some people's comments saying he should be banned for life and never allowed to play in the Irish League again. I don't think that's right, he's a young lad who must learn from the episode and when he comes back his career can blossom."
O'Neill added: "I've never seen a keeper get involved with fans before. I nearly came to blows with a Coleraine fan years ago when he spat at me.
"The referee wanted me to kick the ball and I said no until something was done about the guy, but that was one idiot and these are very rare incidents."
Byrne raced off the pitch in injury time and jumped over the fence behind the goal into the visiting supporters.
The keeper’s father received treatment after the game for a head wound, while Ballymena stated at least three of their fans suffered injuries in the fracas.
And the Sky Blues issued a statement yesterday saying they will firmly back their fans, adding: “Ballymena United will assist the IFA in carrying out their investigation and we are confident that, once the facts are established, our Club and its supporters will be exonerated.”
There have also been allegations from Ballymena supporters that Byrne spat at them during the match.
Home fans stated that Byrne had suffered verbal abuse throughout the game.
Police are investigating an alleged assault at the ground.
The Disciplinary Committee has received a report from referee Shane Andrews as well as video footage.
O’Neill added: “We don’t know what really happened at Warrenpoint so we have to let the investigation determine that.
“When it happens it’s not nice to see.
“I’ve had sectarian abuse throughout my career and it’s the same with other players.
“I can remember Alan Blayney getting similar stick and it is wrong, you shouldn’t have to take it but it does happen.
“I can remember a Cliftonville supporter running onto the pitch and assaulting then Coleraine player Johnny Black.
“People have a go at you and depending on your personality and character you can either accept it as banter or be offended.
“I can use the abuse as motivation and will even give some stick back.
“Unfortunately, a line was crossed on this occasion but give him a chance to come back.
“He’s done well for Warrenpoint and, if given the chance, will do well in the future.”
The unsavoury incident occurred the day after the Northern Ireland Football League Premiership Management Committee said it had constructive talks with clubs regarding increased alleged incidents of unacceptable spectator behaviour at matches.
NIFL stated: “The clubs are keen to develop an education and awareness campaign to promote player welfare, with a strong focus on mental health and wellbeing whilst also creating a safe and respectful environment for everyone to enjoy football in our league.
“The NI Football League will now develop a plan to support its member clubs in a collaborative framework that encourages football-focused spectator conduct with appropriate tools, knowledge and support to address improper spectator conduct.”