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26 January 2011, 15:37
A football thug seen by millions of tv viewers to punch a player at the end of his team's historic FA cup win did so out of "displaced loyalty" to a girlfriend.
Fitness instructor Robert Fitzgerald, 24, ran onto the pitch at the end of the match and attacked defender Scott Laird.
A court heard that Fitzgerald, who had been drinking, was angry that Mr Laird had once been in a relationship with his girlfriend and not treated her "correctly."
After running up to the player, Fitzgerald punched him hard in the face and sent him to the ground.
The assault came at the end of an FA cup match between Stevenage and premiership club Newcastle United, in which the Hertfordshire team won 3-1.
The game, played on Saturday January 8 this year, had been shown on Sky Television and, at the end of it, joyous Stevenage supporters ran onto the pitch to congratulate their players.
Among them, Stevenage Magistrates Court heard, was Fitzgerald and as tv cameras relayed a triumphant scene to millions of television viewers, he was seen to swing a punch into Mr Laird's face.
Fitzgerald was promptly banished from the Stevenage ground, but the court heard he handed himself into police shortly afterwards, telling a custody sergeant "I am feeling a bit of a prat in front of all these people."
Fitzgerald appeared in court pleading guilty to an offence of common assault on Mr Laird and going onto the playing area of a football pitch while at a designated football match.
Phillip Mansfield, prosecuting, told the court how Fitzgerald, of Colts Corner, Stevenage, had been in the crowd to watch Stevenage's home game against Newcastle United.
It was an FA cup clash and the ground was packed solid.
The court heard that at first Fitzgerald had been seen behaving in an inappropriate and disorderly way, shouting abuse at Newcastle players.
But as the game got underway, it became apparent that Fitzgerald had it in for Stevenage's left sided defender, Mr Laird.
Every time the player got near to Fitzgerald, the supporter threw items at him and would spit.
The player was unaware of what was happening and, in the second half, Fitzgerald threw a burger he had been eating at the player.
Stevenage finished the game as 3-1 winners and there were jubilant scenes as home supporters ran on to the pitch at the Broadhall Way ground to congratulate the players.
Mr Mansfield went on: "What the crown say is that at this point the defendant, who is one of a number of people on the pitch, has assaulted Scott Laird. It was one punch landed with some force."
Footage of the attack was played to the magistrates.
Mr Mansfield said that when Fitzgerald had thrown the punch, both of his feet had left the ground.
He said Laird, as a result, had very little recollection of how he got back into the changing rooms.
The blow had left him with a small bump on the left side of his jaw.
In an impact statement read to the court made by Mr Laird, he said he feared that if Fitzgerald was allowed back into the ground it might happen again.
Mr Mansfield said the prosecution were also seeking a football banning order which would forbid Fitzgerald from attending any match under the Football Spectators Act of 1989.
The prosecutor said that the attack by the defendant had been witnessed by other supporters and if it had been thought that the attacker was a Newcastle supporter, it could have "lit the blue touchpaper" and provoked a risk of violence flaring up.
Jennifer Browne, defending, said "There was only one punch and secondly the injury is on a minor scale."
She said Mr Fitzgerald went onto the pitch and he congratulated the other players. He was saying 'Well done, good game.' From there he sees the injured party, Scott Laird, and throws a punch.
"Why? Because the injured party had a relationship with Mr Fitzgerald's current girlfriend. It was some time ago, but my instructions are that he did not treat Mr Fitzgerald's current girlfriend correctly."
As a result she said Fitzgerald had taken matters into his own hands.
She said it was not a pre-meditated assault, adding: "We can term it as misplaced loyalty to his current girlfriend. There is clear evidence of remorse and regret."
Miss Browne said when Fitzgerald handed himself into a police station, he told a sergeant "I'm feeling a bit of a prat in front of all these people."
Miss Browne said her client had been drinking and, upon reflection, now wished it had never happened.
"He is a loyal fan of Stevenage Borough, so there is embarassment that he has punched a good player in the team."
She said Fitzgerald was now in a stable relationship of nine months with his girlfriend, Jade Coles, 24.
Magistrates were also told that in 2005 Fitzgerald had been jailed for six and a half years for an offence of inflicting grievous bodily harm.
He was released from prison in 2008.
Chairman of the Magistrates Dr Kevin Seymour told Fitzgerald the case was being adjourned for reports, which the Probation Service will compile.
Fitzgerald was told that all sentencing options were open and that the offence had crossed the custody thresh hold but, with his girlfriend sitting nearby in the public gallery, he was told the report by the Probation Service would also consider a non custodial disposal.
The case was adjourned until February 12.
Fitzgerald was granted bail, on condition that he has no contact with Mr Laird or any employee of Stevenage Football Club.
He must not attend the ground and he must not go to any football matches between now and the date of sentence.
Before leaving court he was told the question of a banning order would be considered on the day of sentence.
Fitzgerald and his girlfriend left the court without saying anything.