'All it takes is one idiot': Colin Coates admits safety has been a concern at Irish League games
Crusaders captain Colin Coates says he has feared for players' safety at certain moments in his career.
Coates, who has made more than 550 appearances for the north Belfast club he joined as a teenager, made the comments at a time when the spotlight has fallen on fans' behaviour in the domestic game.
The Crues issued a lifetime ban to someone who aimed abuse and spat at Cliftonville striker Joe Gormley.
Linfield manager David Healy hit out at some Ballymena United fans for taunting injured goalkeeper Roy Carroll after the 1-0 win last Friday, and Sky Blues chief David Jeffrey added that he was a target for abuse.
At the end of the County Antrim Shield final at Seaview, a Linfield supporter came onto the pitch and although no one was injured, that incident, along with the celebrations following David Cushley's late winner, highlighted how easy it is for fans to confront players.
Coates, who has earned six Northern Ireland caps in a career which has seen him pocket every domestic prize including a Setanta Cup medal, feels it's fierce criticism from his own supporters which can rankle him more than abuse from away fans.
But the 33-year-old says there have also been times when players have felt they could be physically attacked.
"I actually think it's when your own fans give you stick it can be worse," said the centre-back.
"That does happen, especially after a successful period. Players might be going through a hard time in their personal life and if that is affecting their form they don't need their own fans on their back.
"Thankfully it is minimal at our club. Players aren't robots and they never will be. I think they should be cut more slack from some fans. You expect abuse from opposition fans but at my age that has no effect on me.
"But there have been occasions when fans have got onto the pitch and that can be worrying. There was an Irish Cup semi-final against Glentoran at Mourneview Park when their fans came onto the pitch and an Irish Cup final against Linfield when the same thing happened. To me, that is totally unacceptable.
"All it takes is for one idiot to do something stupid. You've just lost a Cup final and hundreds of fans are coming on shouting in players' faces? That's not right. At the new Windsor that might not happen but I can remember at the time thinking, 'This isn't safe'."
Coates accepts that all personal abuse is wrong and he hopes fans can identify trouble makers to keep it a football environment where families feel comfortable.
"With fans being able to come onto the pitch, that can be a worry," he added.
"Football is an emotional game and fans get worked up. I think it may have to be easy for fans to get to the pitch for ground safety reasons but fans need to do some self-policing as well. Hopefully they can act to make sure a serious incident doesn't happen."
The Crues travel to Linfield tomorrow knowing the Blues have one hand on the Gibson Cup after Healy's men went 12 points clear with only four games remaining and boasting a vastly superior goal difference than second-placed Ballymena United.
Coates added: "A slow start and injuries harmed our title defence but we won the Shield and hopefully we can end this season on a high with the Irish Cup but that will only happen if we give Ballinamallard all the respect they deserve."