The PR-free glory of the footballers’ twitterverse

Thanks to Twitter, footballers and fans are finally getting up close and occasionally personal. But how long will it last?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

To tweet or not to tweet? That is the existential dilemma facing the modern footballer. In recent weeks, a number of Premiership players have decided they will no longer suffer the slings and arrows of abusive tweeters and have closed down their Twitter accounts.

Twitter polarises opinion. It’s digital Marmite. For some, it is an edgy and exciting virtual space in which unfettered speech reigns, superinjunctions are busted and Arab uprisings are fomented. Twitterphobes, however, argue that, judging by the trending topics, a large proportion of the 106 million tweeters are celebrity-obsessives recycling vacuous gossip about Justin Bieber, Rebecca Black or Pippa Middleton. Former Cockney Rebel frontman Steve Harley, wrote an impassioned diatribe against social media in The Times (London), declaring: ‘I am a grown up… Instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter were designed for teenagers, weren’t they? Intelligent, mature people should learn to live without a MySpace or Twitter account.’

spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has questioned whether Twitter is really a bastion of free speech. In a Telegraph blog, he argues that Twitter is ‘a surprisingly conformist and uncritical arena’ where those who express views which offend the liberal orthodoxy are ‘twitch-hunted’.

But being hounded off Twitter isn’t a fate confined to outspoken un-PC commentators like Jan Moir. Poor old Darron Gibson, the Manchester United midfielder, quit after just two hours due to the deluge of abusive tweets he received from his own fans. West Ham defender Danny Gabbidon also closed down his account after being targeted by the Twitter boo boys. In his final tweet, Gabbidon hit back at the cyber-bullies saying: ‘U know what, f*** the lot of you, u will never get another tweet from me again, you just don’t get it do you. Bye bye.’ Kevin Davies, a prolific tweeter with 100,000 followers, also quit Twitter due to the abuse he was receiving. ‘After 18 years in pro football abuse is part of job description’, tweeted the Bolton striker. ‘But not for me anymore. Lot of haters around…’

Given the recent spate of hate-induced Twitticides, should we conclude that that the cyber ‘haters’ are poisoning the Twittersphere – or at least that bit of it devoted to football banter? Actually I think the Twitterphobes are just as wrong as the zealots who see Twitter as a subversive weapon. Twitter is only a communication tool and, consequently, it’s only as radical or reactionary – or as vacuous – as its users. In other words, don’t shoot the (instant) messenger. Sure, footballers get stick on Twitter, just as they do every Saturday afternoon from the terraces. They can either take it to heart and cancel their accounts; or else they can be a bit more thick-skinned and ignore the ‘haters’ (or better still read the instructions and work out how to block unwanted followers). Robbie Savage is not only an infamous pantomime villain; he is also one of the game’s most prominent tweeters. Just as he thrives on abuse from opposition fans, he doesn’t seem bothered by the stick he receives on Twitter. ‘I’ll have about 1,000 tweets a day and 500 of them will call me a wanker and 500 will be nice’, he said in a Guardian interview last week.

Like many not-so-early adopters, I never used to understand all the fuss about Twitter. Until I bought an iPhone, that is. Now I so get it. OMG, I’ve even started talking like an American teenager. LOL. Only joking ppl. It won’t change the world but, from a football perspective, Twitter has opened up a relatively unregulated space where footballers can engage directly with fans. There are no ghost-written newspaper columns or PR-managed platitudes in the Twittersphere. Manchester United fans who are fed up with the anodyne interviews on the club’s official channel MUTV – aka Pravda – will certainly prefer the unrefined opinions tweeted directly by the players. When United lost 3-0 at Anfield in March, the club imposed a media blackout – with the exception, that is, of the injured Rio Ferdinand who tweeted ‘Bad result today no excuses’.

One of the common gripes about ‘modern football’ is that today’s Baby Bentley-driving millionaire players have lost touch with ordinary fans. It’s true that footballers no longer share the Number 23 tram to the stadium on match days, but Twitter has enabled players and fans to communicate directly. One of the paradoxical characteristics of Twitter is that, even though it is unquestionably a mass media channel, it can still feel like an intimate club. Take, for example, the burgeoning Crystal Palace Twitter community. Here you’ll find fans, players, journalists, fanzine editors, cheerleaders and even co-owner Steve Parish exchanging tweets. It’s in the public domain but often feels like a private conversation.

Could Twitter help to reconnect footballers with fans? ‘Even crammed into 140 grammatically promiscuous characters, suddenly footballers look a little more likable, a little less remote’, wrote Barney Ronay in the Observer. Wayne Rooney has recently started tweeting and, as Ronay points out, ‘has come across well: relaxed, surprisingly wry, and refreshingly distinct from the angry, smudged, alienated figure glimpsed from afar’. Even the spelling mistakes in his tweets seem to underline the fact that this is the authentic, non-ghostwritten Rooney speaking.

At Old Trafford on Sunday there was a banner which read ‘Stay on your feet’. Followers of Rio Ferdinand’s Twitter account will have immediately got it – a reference to commentator Ray Wilkins’ overuse of the phrase during Spurs’ 4-1 Champions League defeat by Real Madrid. It’s an in-joke, but here’s the thing: Rio Ferdinand has 985,000 Twitter followers. That’s more than the entire population of Slovenia. Ferdinand’s Twitter account shows that, although this is no longer an exclusive club where everyone is on first-name terms, it still feels like a well-kept secret.

How long football’s Twittersphere can allow relatively unregulated dialogue between fans and players is questionable. In February this year, the Football Association (FA) issued guidelines on using social networking sites. Players were warned that they could face disciplinary action if they posted comments which were ‘threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting’. Former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel and West Ham’s Danny Gabbidon and Carlton Cole have all been charged by the FA for posting inappropriate tweets.

The new connection between players and fans on Twitter is under threat from, on the one hand, oversensitive footballers frightened of a bit of cyber-banter, and on the other, the FA increasingly playing the role of a Twitter cop. It ought to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but there’s a real risk that it could prove to be nothing more than a brief encounter.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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Topics Politics


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