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Championship Focus: Aston Villa continues surge; Leeds win again

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Leeds United moved a bit closer to automatic promotion thanks to an MLS product-inspired win and Sheffield United’s slip-up against Millwall.

[ MORE: Man Utd 2-1 West Ham ]


Aston Villa 2-1 Bristol City

The Villans cooled off red-hot Bristol City and can feel pretty good about their playoff ambitions. Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham converted a penalty and Conor Hourihane also scored as Villa moved four points clear of sixth-placed Bristol City.

Villa has now won eight-straight league matches under Dean Smith, moving from 11th to fifth. The Villans were 15th when he took over for Steve Bruce in October.

Sheffield United 1-1 Millwall

The Blades couldn’t keep up, mostly because couldn’t nurse a 1-0 lead thanks to an 85th minute red card and stoppage time finish from Jake Cooper.

Leeds United 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday

Wake Forest and New York City FC product Jack Harrison scored a 65th minute goal that stood up as Leeds took a three-point lead on the third place Blades.

Jack Harrison of Leeds United (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

West Bromwich Albion 4-1 Preston North End

A Dwight Gayle hat trick joined Jay Rodriguez on the scoresheet as the Baggies built a 4-0 lead before conceding in stoppage time. West Brom is nine points clear of 7th and looks certain to partake in the playoffs.

Elsewhere
Derby County 4-0 Bolton
Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull City
Nottingham Forest 1-2 Blackburn Rovers
QPR 4-0 Swansea City
Reading 2-1 Brentford
Stoke City 2-2 Rotherham United
Ipswich Town 1-1 Birmingham City
Wigan Athletic v. Norwich City — 7 a.m. ET Sunday

Aston Villa great Agbonlahor announces retirement

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With the exception of a couple of loans when he was a teenager, Gabriel Agbonlahor was a one-club man at Aston Villa. On Wednesday, he confirmed that he’d end his career in the Claret and Blue.

The English striker called time on his 14-year professional career, having spent the last nine months as a free agent after being released by Aston Villa last summer. Agbonlahor finishes his career with 322 Premier League appearances and goals in England’s top tier. From 2005 when he made his professional debut, he quickly became one of the most exciting young prospects in the Premier League, going on to become a prolific scorer.

[WATCH: Go behind the scenes with USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter]

Between 2007 and 2010, Agbonlahor scored 36 goals for Aston Villa in the Premier League, helping them to strong finishes in the league. His league form also earned him a few call-ups for Fabio Capello and the England National Team, though he only made three appearances.

With his breath-taking pace and dribbling ability, Agbonlahor looked as though he’d develop into the next great Premier League striker. Yet he never truly reached those great heights. Although he stayed with Aston Villa when it was relegated, he wasn’t able to find his old form to bring them back to the top division.

Fan who punched Grealish jailed; gets 10-year stadium ban

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The justice system in the UK has acted swiftly, as the fan who punched Jack Grealish on Sunday has already been sent to prison.

Paul Mitchell, a Birmingham City fan, pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to 14 weeks in prison. He has also been banned from going to any football stadium in the UK for the next 10 years and was fined $458.

Mitchell, 27, ran onto the pitch during the second-city derby in England’s second-tier on Sunday and punched Aston Villa star Grealish.

The Villa captain was knocked to the floor, but then had the last laugh as he went on to score the winning goal in a 1-0 victory.

[ MORE: Grealish reacts to being punched ]

Birmingham City have released a statement on the fan being jailed.

“Birmingham City Football Club welcomes the sentence handed down to Paul Mitchell by Birmingham Magistrates today. What he did was unacceptable and has no place in football. The Club can confirm that Mr Mitchell is banned from our home ground, the St. Andrew’s Trillion Trophy Stadium, for life. And nor will he have access to purchase tickets for away games involving Birmingham City Football Club, or have tickets purchased on his behalf.”

“The Club has also banned another supporter for life for a series of vile and malicious Tweets on social media, relating to Jack Grealish and his family. The individual in question remains the subject of an ongoing investigation by West Midlands Police.”

Click play on the video above to watch the shocking incident, as three separate incidents involving fans running on the pitch took place over the weekend in the UK.

Glasgow Rangers James Tavernier was confronted by a Hibernian fan in Edinburgh on Friday, while Man United’s Chris Smalling was barged into by an Arsenal fan who ran onto the pitch at the Emirates Stadium in celebration on Sunday.

Players must shun pitch invaders or risk more on-field attacks

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Over the past few years, pitch invaders have become a constant bane of stadium security in the game across the world. The stewards guard the sideline and give chase when needed, but the publicity received often sways those bold enough to jump the fence.

Fortunately, the tamer version of the events largely outnumber the more aggressive ones, but no matter how sparse, the violent incidents are reprehensible in a manner that makes them inexcusable. The players are exposed on the field, and pitch invaders who evade immediate capture pose a significant threat if filled with ill-intentions.

Consider the incident with Jack Grealish on Sunday morning. The Aston Villa star, captaining the side for the first time, was rushed by a fan in the stands who sucker punched the 23-year-old in the head from behind. Grealish did not see it coming, and it is by nothing outside of blind luck that the punch was not more devastating.

Now consider the possibilities of a violent pitch invader reaching a player with a more sinister instrument besides his bare fist. If fans can sneak pyrotechnics into a stadium, they surely can work in a knife or a shiv or something worse. Just a single occurrence of that nature would send shockwaves through the soccer community and undoubtedly result in sweeping changes in stadium security and fan access to the game.

So what has buoyed fans to run onto the pitch at such a rate? Consider the aforementioned tamer versions of these incidents. Players with worldwide star power like Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo have all faced pitch invaders with clearly harmless intentions in the recent past, and have treated them with kindness, often interacting in a positive manner with these folks, even occasionally offering to take a selfie, sign their shirt, or give up their own clothing or gear. Often times those running onto the pitch are children, hoping to earn a moment with their lifelong idol, unaware to fully grasp the true extent of the consequences.

While those moments are precious and make for beautiful opportunities to praise the graciousness of the players, they have potentially ugly side effects. As the benign pitch invaders make waves across the viral community, it serves to spark and embolden those who may have more malicious intentions. In the end, it is impossible to know the true nature of a pitch invader’s intent until they reach the player they intend to target.

Players, therefore, have a responsibility to their fellow athletes to turn away and shun pitch invaders and allow stewards and security officials to do their job protecting those exposed on the field. As unfortunate as it is, the days of adorable moments between players and pitch invaders should end soon, or the game risks the safety of its players and the relatively generous access to their favorite clubs and role models they enjoy these days.

Pitch invasion has no place in the game of football, innocuous or otherwise, and when stadium security fails as the first line of defense to protect those on the field, it falls to the players to stop glamorizing the attention-seekers and do their best to dissuade any more violent encounters.

Grealish reacts to attack by pitch invader, match-winning goal

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Jack Grealish was on Cloud Nine before he was face down in the 18.

The Aston Villa man was handed the captain’s arm band for a Sunday derby at Birmingham City, and incredibly proud of it.

[ MORE: Liverpool-Burnley recap ]

But early in the Second City Derby, a pitch invader attacked Grealish from behind. The punch in the side of the face floored Grealish, and teammates rushed to his aid.

“I was just unaware at the time,” Grealish said. “I was walking into position and I just felt a whack around the side of the face. Obviously there’s rivalry in football but I don’t think there’s any place for that really.”

Grealish would get the last laugh, scoring the lone goal as Villa kept its promotion playoff hopes alive and leapt over Birmingham City on the table.

“I just tried to get on with my job in the end and I think I did. It was unbelievable to get the winner in front of the fans after what happened. … It’s the best day of my life to come here for the first time, captain Aston Villa and score the winner. It’s what dreams are made of, especially being an Aston Villa fan.”

As for the managers, Villa boss Dean Smith ripped the security at St. Andrew’s while Blues manager Garry Monk said that “one idiot does not reflect Birmingham fans and I’m sure they don’t condone it as well.”

Birmingham City apologized to Grealish and Villa, saying the act has “no place in football or society.” The club said in a release that the fan will be banned from St. Andrew’s forever, and that it will back the fullest enforcement of the law.