LONDON (AFP) - Aston Villa's Jack Grealish was punched by a pitch-invading Birmingham fan in a shocking incident during Sunday's (March 10) English Championship clash but the midfielder had the last laugh as he scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over their bitter rivals.
Grealish was in the Birmingham penalty area in the 10th minute when a man ran onto the field and threw a punch from behind at the Villa captain.
The blow caught Grealish on the side of the head and sent him sprawling to the turf.
The intruder was quickly restrained by a steward, as Villa players including Tammy Abraham and Glenn Whelan rushed to Grealish's defence.
After the fan had been shoved over, he was eventually led away by police, defiantly blowing kisses to the crowd.
A visibly furious Grealish was helped to his feet and was able to continue playing once order was restored at Birmingham's St Andrew's stadium.
Grealish produced the perfect response to the assault in the 70th minute.
Taking possession 20 yards from goal, he advanced into the Birmingham penalty area before drilling a low shot into the far corner to seal Villa’s league double over their hated neighbours.
In a fittingly dramatic gesture, Grealish jumped into the stand to celebrate with the Villa fans behind the goal and was booked as a result.
"Following the incident on the pitch involving an attack on an Aston Villa player; a man has been arrested and en route to a custody block," West Midlands Police tweeted.
Former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville called for Birmingham to be docked points over the attack.
"The club are going have to take a huge punishment for this to act as a deterrent in the future. A Points deduction or Empty stadium for 10 games!" he tweeted.
Former England striker Gary Lineker branded the attack "abhorrent", adding on Twitter: "Well done Jack Grealish for keeping his cool".
There is a long history of animosity between Birmingham and Villa supporters, with outbreaks of serious violence in the streets marring many of the "second city" derby encounters.
There was fighting between rival gangs before Sunday's match, with police having to hold back fans while at least one man was seen being treated by paramedics after suffering a head wound.
Fanning the flames further, Grealish is a boyhood Villa fan and once turned down a chance to join Birmingham on loan when he was a youngster, reportedly saying: "I'm not going there".
In 2002, a Birmingham fan was jailed for four months after running onto the pitch at St Andrew's to taunt then Villa goalkeeper Peter Enckelman, who had just conceded a bizarre own goal when he let a back-pass roll under his foot into the net.
The supporter made an obscene gesture in Enckelman's face and slapped his cheek.
Adding to the tense nature of Sunday's derby, both teams are fighting to earn a place in the Championship play-offs for promotion to the English Premier League, with Villa now a point ahead of Birmingham.
The attack on Grealish continued a worrying trend of supporters targeting players this season.
On Friday in Scotland, Rangers captain James Tavernier was confronted by a Hibernian fan who had jumped out of the home stands at Easter Road.
The supporter kicked the ball away from Tavernier before the pair engaged in a bout of shoving.
Police later confirmed that a 21-year-old man had been arrested.
That incident came six days after a glass bottle was thrown from the same section of Hibernian's stadium, as Celtic's Scott Sinclair prepared to take a corner.
In December, Manchester City's Raheem Sterling was subjected to alleged racist abuse from Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge.
Stoke's former Scotland midfielder Charlie Adam tweeted: "Twice in three days we've seen players attacked by supporters, what is going on?
"Football needs to stamp this out quickly. Only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt."