Banning footballers from Twitter? OMFG

Football clubs’ semi-Orwellian efforts to keep their players off Twitter will further alienate footballers from their fans.

Duleep Allirajah

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Footballers aren’t what they used to be, are they? They wear gloves when it’s cold. They can’t hold their drink. Their ghost-written memoirs are dull. Their media interviews are ultra bland. In short, there’s no room in football for the mavericks.

Is this rose-tinted view of the past true? Judge for yourselves. What I would say is that, while there must still be larger-than-life characters in the game, the top clubs enforce a PR exclusion zone around their players. Journalists don’t enjoy the same access to players they once did and players are gagged by over-protective communications departments. This week it was reported that Manchester United had banned its players from posting on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The EPL Talk website claimed that ‘Twitter accounts have been removed for Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher, while Facebook accounts have been removed for Wes Brown. Meanwhile, the contents of the Facebook wall for the following footballers have been erased: Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand.’

The club itself issued a statement insisting that ‘no Manchester United players maintain personal profiles on social networking websites’. The statement went on to say, in Orwellian tones: ‘Any official news relating to Manchester United or its players will be communicated via ManUtd.com.’ Bookies are now taking bets on which clubs will follow United’s example and ban blogging and tweeting, with Spurs (4/1) and Liverpool (6/1) the front runners.

I’m not suggesting that footballers’ Twitter accounts are a hotbed of subversion. They’re not. Social networking sites do, however, provide a relatively unregulated channel through which footballers can communicate with supporters. And because Facebook and Twitter are harder for clubs to police, there is huge potential for players to go off-message. Last year, Palace youth-team player Ashley-Paul Robinson made the mistake of announcing on his Facebook page that he was looking to move to Fulham. Or to put in yoof speak: ‘Ashley-Paul is goin fulham on monday. If i pull dis off im on dis ting.’

Unfortunately for Ashley-Paul, his Facebook privacy settings allowed all 2.7million members of the London network to read his posts. Within days the media had picked up on the story. Palace fans were appalled, as much by his bad grammar as his disloyalty. When he realised his mistake he posted another message on Facebook saying. ‘Ashley-Paul has been very naughty lol.’ Neil Warnock was unimpressed. ‘We feel it’s probably better that he looks elsewhere to further his career’, said the Palace manager. Sure enough Robinson is now plying his trade at Ryman League side Dulwich Hamlet, which is probably not quite the ‘ting’ he had hoped to be on. LOL.

It isn’t just obscurities like Ashley-Paul Robinson who have upset their clubs by careless talk on social networking sites. This week, Liverpool winger Ryan Babel vented his frustration on Twitter after being omitted from the Liverpool squad to play Stoke City. ‘The boss left me out. No explanation’, tweeted Babel. His Anfield days look numbered. The most famous tweeting footballer is Darren Bent whose cult Twitter account has over 30,000 followers. The player himself has had his Twitter tag @dbthetruth embroidered on his boots. How exactly did Bent earn his reputation as a man who fearlessly wields the trusty Blackberry of truth? By moaning about his protracted transfer from Spurs, of course. In one of his most celebrated tweets, Bent exclaimed: ‘Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go Stoke NO do I wanna go sunderland YES so stop fucking around Levy.’

Sunderland have not prevented Bent from tweeting. Of course, if he were to use Twitter to badmouth the manager or the club, that liberal policy might change. But a quick scan of Bent’s page shows that most of his tweets are utterly banal. When not discussing the merits of trainers, music or computer games, DBTheTruth’s pearls of wisdom include: ‘House hunting is hard work’, ‘Feeling real tired after training today. Rest day I think’ and ‘Back in huntingdon, going to eat some chinese I think’. As the man says, he speaks the truth.

A few years ago footballers started publishing blogs and online diaries on websites like icons.com. Sadly, 99.9 per cent of footballers’ blogs were dull and dismal. There were a few honourable exceptions such as the former Crystal Palace midfielder Aki Riihilahti whose personal website was simply genius. I haven’t read Riihilahti’s site since he left Palace, but when I visited the site this week it was clear the old magic was still there. ‘Since I was bit bored after training today and actually could have hit my all time low because I even googled myself to excuse myself from doing anything productive’, he wrote. ‘Don’t try this at home! Internet is crazy, irrational and without boundaries, so pretty amazing really. However, it can be a bit scary to find out that in youtube someone has posted a video under title “Riihilahti scores with his genitals” (another word was actually used in the description) and more worryingly people had went to watch it 4815 times.’

So, apart from a few exceptions like Aki Riihilahti, most footballers have nothing interesting to say on their blogs. No surprise there. But that’s no excuse for football clubs treating players like children who can’t be trusted to use social networking forums. Clubs have nothing to gain from banning their players from tweeting or blogging. At worst, it will only serve to further alienate fans from players. There is the risk, it’s true, that a player might lift the lid on dressing-room discord or his own disaffection with the club. But preventing players from tweeting isn’t going to stop these stories going public. If a player really wants out of a club, he or his agent will leak the story to the press.

We might find what they say banal, but we should defend to the death our footballers’ right to tweet.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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