Dedicated followers unable to resist online conversation
Twitter has given footballers a means of breaking down barriers with fans, writes Barney Ronay
A s the third decade of football's digitally driven global boom approaches, there are a great many things that look, if not broken beyond repair, then at least in need of a vigorous reconditioning.
The breakdown of the relationship between fans and players was one of the tragedies of the atomised modern game. But against all expectations it has been Twitter -- the most laconic, celebrity-driven and, for many, gallopingly inane of the social networking media -- that has begun to hurl the odd significant grappling hook across the divide.
Twitter and football: at first it looked like a fling, perhaps even a slightly troubled affair. Finally, and with a notable upsurge in the past few weeks, it seems to have become a permanent splicing together. Initially Twitter had promised to become a mere numerical phenomenon: the towering worldwide followings racked up by the likes of Shaquille O'Neal (3.7 million followers) seemed to stand simply as a testament to the magnetism of sporting celebrity.
In the Premier League, Twitter is perhaps becoming something else. There is increasingly a sense of rawness to the interaction between players, fans and media. In the most carefully insulated of major sports, Twitter seems to be altering subtly the established dynamic.
Twitter is giving players a voice again, unmuzzled by the marketing structures of the plc club. Even crammed into 140 grammatically promiscuous characters, suddenly footballers look a little more likable, a little less remote.
There will continue to be casualties. When Arsene Wenger was asked on Thursday if he objected to his players using Twitter, he stopped short of an endorsement. "It can be very good and very bad. If it can be a positive image of the club [that's okay], it also can be bad," Wenger said, dismissing the idea that he may make a virtual appearance himself with a wry smile.
Perhaps he had in mind the experience of the Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson. Introduced to Twitter on Monday morning, by midday Gibson had 12,000 followers. Half an hour later he shut down his account for good, stung by the spume of venom from both his own club's supporters ('team do all hard work keeping possession then u hit row Z every fuckin time!!') and those of Northern Ireland, whose advances he turned down in favour of the Republic.
On Thursday, Danny Gabbidon became the latest player to be charged by the English FA over a tweet aimed at his own side's fans after defeat by Bolton (specifically: 'U know what, fuck the lot of you, u will never get another tweet from me again, you just don't get it do you. Bye bye').
The Notts County manager, Martin Allen, is another recent high-profile football Twitter casualty. "I just had to stop," Allen says. "Twitter was fine while I was working in the media and marketing my company X Factor football, but when I left Barnet [two weeks ago] things moved to another level. I got Tweets saying 'I hope you get CANCER' and 'Who wants to come to the party when Martin Allen dies'. I started off really open on Twitter. I'd always follow people back. I had 10,000 followers and I used to enjoy it. But there was just no point putting myself through that."
So far, so football. But there have been successes too. Aside from his fine form on the pitch, Wayne Rooney's most significant stride towards reputation-rehabilitation may prove to have been his decision to join Twitter. A week later he has close to 320,000 followers and has come across well: relaxed, surprisingly wry, and refreshingly distinct from the angry, smudged, alienated figure glimpsed from afar. This has also been a positive for United, for whom a healing of the distance between Rooney and the club's fans will be a further balm on the agitation of early season.
"Greater contact with the public can be a good thing if you're not being perceived in the right way," says Max Clifford, PR guru to the stars. "Wayne Rooney's the proof of that. If I was doing public relations for Manchester United, I would be delighted he was showing himself to be different to the way he's perceived. This is his best way to show what he's really like. Twitter makes players more up to speed with what people are saying.
"They can respond to that instantly. It also gives them freedom to respond to stories in the newspapers. It's almost impossible to get a tabloid to print an apology for a story that's a load of rubbish. Players can now respond straight away, and if they're clever even name the journalist responsible."
Clifford points to Rio Ferdinand as an example of how to master the medium. "Rio Ferdinand is older, more mature and he's looking to his own future career. He understands the importance of popularity as a marketing tool."
And what a ferociously territorial marketing tool it is. In the most recent all-comer Twitter-rankings O'Neal continues to top the tree in sport. Behind him Kaka is the highest-ranked footballer at No 32 in the world with 3.5 million followers. Ronaldo is at No 56 with 2.5 million (more than Bill Gates and Stephen Fry; a little fewer than Soulja Boy and Ricky Martin). Scrolling down past Fearne Cotton (No 177, gaining fast on the Dalai Lama) you meet Ronaldinho and Diego Forlan and finally get to the Premier League's top dog, Ferdinand, steady on 849,000 and No 462 in the world, just below Kelly Osbourne. Cesc Fabregas is his next closest Premier League challenger, followed by Jack Wilshere with 460,000 followers, just ahead of Sesame Street.
Glimpsed in the context of this rampaging global celebrity nexus, the clubs' desire to take charge of the public utterances of their star players starts to look, not just doomed to fail, but also a little outmoded.
Naturally, most have now introduced a Twitter protocol. "Our policy is we allow players to use Twitter with common sense," says Wendy Taylor, Newcastle United's head of media. "There are subjects we ask them not to tweet about. Team news and injury news should be confidential. Also we ask them not to make negative comments about players, managers, officials, or the FA."
Newcastle have already been stung this way: in January Jose Enrique revealed that he would miss the following day's game against Tottenham with injury: to the exasperation of Alan Pardew, who had intended to keep his team a secret.
There has been a widespread perception that Twitter is entirely a media phenomenon; that it is the media, talking mainly to themselves, that harbour the most excitement about this new source of snippets from the table. But Twitter is about a little more than simply sourcing stories; it may even make them a little more interesting to read. The most high-profile media-football exchange to date was the impromptu Twitter interview conducted by the Daily Mirror sports writer Oliver Holt with Michael Owen after Owen had played for Manchester United at Newcastle. After a forthright exchange of views, player and writer seemed to agree on one thing: the relationship between newspapers and footballers is deadlocked in a cycle of mistrust and animosity.
There is much to dislike about the current set-up for interacting with footballers: the sponsorial nudges, the time limits, the shared foraging for scraps. It is hard to decide who the real loser is in this communally erected corporate boredom, although it is hard to disagree with Owen's conclusion that "the people who suffer are fans". By the same token, it is football supporters who stand to gain most from Twitter -- which has already begun to prick the skin of the sealed media bubble and allow some unconditioned air to flood in.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest the younger generation of Twitter-smart fans do not share the sense of alienation from players felt by many of the older supporters. Why would they when the intimate personal thoughts of half the Arsenal first team are available unfiltered and fed directly to their screen? Twitter may be an irritation for some. It may be, by turns, mundane, groupie-ish and infused with sudden swirling weather fronts of venom. But if it can continue to give the players back to the fans, even just a little bit, it will surely have achieved something significant.
Sunday Indo Sport