Play with snakes and you'll soon get bitten
Twitter compulsion exposes footballers to needless torrent of online poison
LAST Tuesday, Anthony Pilkington posted an innocuous tweet in which he described Poland as "always a strong team and a very tough place to go" while congratulating his Ireland team-mates on getting a decent result.
Nothing much to see, move on. The responses he got were pretty positive until one person decided to enforce the Twitter rule that no matter what a famous person writes, somebody less famous must reply with abuse: "Your not f****** Irish and you won't be getting your game when you come back in march #c***".
The asterisks weren't part of the original tweet but it's yet another reason to wonder why players bother with a situation where they open up the floodgates on themselves in social media.
Perhaps it's a desire to have their ego stroked by supporters when everything is going well but, the nature of football being what it is, things are bound to go wrong and when that happens, the Twitter tirades are often vicious.
It's not like they are in an industry where your number of followers is seen by some as indicative of the kind of influence you hold or how good you are at your chosen career. And even if it was, they would have enough money to buy several million followers and make themselves look extremely popular.
Instead, their sole job is to perform well on the pitch and anything that takes away from their chances of doing that – or is even perceived to – should be jettisoned.
James McClean doesn't drink alcohol and is regarded by anybody who has encountered him as a solid professional with a good attitude but while there are many worse addictions, McClean's inability not to put his foot in it on Twitter is scarring his reputation.
Is it fair that he's not publicly allowed to have an opinion on everything from poppies to the editorial content of certain newspapers to Panorama documentaries? Probably not. Is it the reality? Yes.
Reputation is often built on perception and, in the remarkably conservative world of football managers and chairmen, McClean already has one for typing himself into trouble. Ireland captain Robbie Keane didn't mention McClean by name but his call for a 10-day international blackout of the social media shouldn't go unheeded.
One of the complaints made by people who like doing that sort of thing is the lack of "characters" in football, but as soon as somebody like McClean dares to express an opinion, the invective rains down upon him. But it's about time he started to deal with the reality of the situation rather than how, ideally, it should be.
Padraig Harrington spoke earlier this year of his bewilderment about sportspeople on Twitter because, he said, it allows others into your head and human nature generally spots negatives even when they are surrounded by positives.
In any city centre, for example, you might see two people fighting in the middle of the day while also passing by thousands of others quietly going about their daily business. The next person you meet, however, is going to hear about the pair punching the heads off each other.
It's a similar story for athletes online where the majority of interaction is positive – unless you're Joey Barton – but even though it's possible to block those people who are being particularly nasty, you must first have read what they have to say and, at that point, their message has already gone through.
Professional players generally have superb mental strength which enables them to cope with the barrage of 'banter' which they endure at away grounds – all of which is a great part of the atmosphere.
The problem is that it's far easier to ignore negativity with your ears than with your eyes because the moment passes quicker. On Saturday, as he often does, Sylvain Distin responded to some of the Everton supporters who felt he was at fault for the third Liverpool goal as he gave away the free-kick from which Daniel Sturridge scored. Some felt he should retire, others that he had cost them "another" derby match – and these were from Everton supporters.
It might have been the highlight of their weekend to get a direct reply from Distin but it's a mystery as to what professional benefit it gives to the Everton defender other than having a few more supporters thinking he's a nice bloke.
"I could never see myself on Twitter," said Ryan Giggs in an interview on Saturday. "Players are human. If you're going to get some stick it's going to affect you. If it's in the paper you don't have to read it. If you've got to be on Twitter so many times a day you've got to look at the abuse which can't be nice."
It brought to mind Muhammad Ali's question that if there were 10,000 snakes coming at him, half of which didn't want to hurt him, and he had a door he could close, should he hope that the good snakes form a shield around him or should he just close the door and stay safe?
For as long as players are leaving themselves open for abuse, the Twitter snakes will never be far away. For them, their best bet would be to close the door.