Let’s start with a run-through of what happened. Tottenham had lost on penalties to Norwich in the FA Cup on Wednesday, a defeat at their own stadium that was extremely difficult to take – the latest low in a traumatic season. It was too much for one home fan, in particular.
As Eric Dier left the pitch, having scored his penalty and played well in his old and preferred role of centre-half, the individual began his diatribe. According to one witness, he called Dier every expletive under the sun.
It is not language that Dier has not heard before. Nor is it even language that his mother, Louise, has not heard before. She is the daughter of Ted Croker, the former Football Association secretary, and she has attended many, many games. She is a formidable woman, who has six children with her former tennis player husband, Jeremy, and he, too, is wearily familiar with the levels of vitriol inside football grounds.
Normally, Dier would ignore the invective and, in this case, it is unclear whether he actually heard it. But one of the Dier clan did. It was Patrick, the youngest sibling, because he was sitting close by.
Quite simply, Patrick was not prepared to remain silent. And who could blame him? He became embroiled in an argument with the man and Dier was certainly aware of this bit. Because that was when he began his clamber into the stand and over the seats, row by row, in an attempt to look after his brother. The Diers are a tightly knit family and Eric, the third-born, is particularly protective of Patrick.
Faced with the 6ft 2in Dier coming towards him, what did the fan do? He appeared to make conciliatory gestures with his hands before turning and legging it. Thank goodness he did because if Dier had caught up with him, we might be talking about an even more serious incident – possibly in Eric Cantona at Crystal Palace territory. As it was, there was no physical altercation.
When Dier woke on Thursday, it had not been a bad dream. Does he regret his reaction? Yes. Would he do it again? No. It feels inevitable that he will be censured by the Football Association because the governing body cannot condone players going into the crowd in an aggressive manner. To take it to the extreme, it could provoke a major disturbance.
One thing to say is that it was out of character for Dier. Talk to him and you will find an intelligent guy with a laid-back drawl. A gentle giant in many ways, even if he plainly has a steely streak. But most people have a tipping point and this was Dier’s.
An aspect of the wider conversation takes in what family members of players have to endure at matches. They will hear their loved ones being abused in the basest possible terms when performances go bad, with insults about their mothers, sisters and pretty much anything else you might care to imagine.
It has long since reached the stage where greater thought needs to be given to where family are seated, even if it is easy to feel that wherever it is, there will normally be an idiot within earshot. At Spurs away games, for example, players’ families are often put inside the travelling enclosure, which can be enjoyable on the good days and fraught with potential for conflict on the bad ones. It is a wonder that there are not regular fights at matches of all clubs between players’ family and other supporters.
It is always jarring when what is considered to be acceptable – however uneasily so – in football is transposed on to other sports or everyday society. Would a cricketer or tennis player be subjected to snarling insults about, say, the sexual preferences of their partner? And, if they were, would the perpetrators not be ejected from the crowd? Imagine walking along Oxford Street and being threatened and abused by a passer-by.
That person could be arrested. Football supporting is all about passion and tribalism but there are lines, there are limits.
Another strange thing is how some football fans appear to think that the expensive price of a ticket enables them to shout whatever they like at players and those players simply have to take it, particularly as they are paid so handsomely – in part by those ticket prices. It is a twisted logic.
Moreover, those same fans will often fawn over the players they abuse if they ever meet them – making them the worst kind of sycophants. They will do so with a staggering lack of self-awareness but, to them, this too is perfectly fine. It is all in the game. What cannot be in the game are the insults that players or, indeed, family members have to put up with and, as Dier showed, there is a moment when enough is enough.
José Mourinho and Spurs are backing their man and, such is the level of feeling, there would be uproar from them if he were banned by the FA. The governing body faces a dilemma. It is time to take a stand against the abusers but, on the other hand, can Dier reasonably expect to escape punishment?