As #Pogba flashed up on the electronic advertising hoardings around the Old Trafford pitch on Sunday, the man who sold the England captain after tiring of “Brand Beckham” must have been secretly cursing under his breath from his seat in the directors’ box.
t certainly does not require a giant leap to imagine Alex Ferguson being rather less than impressed by the fuss surrounding Paul Pogba’s Twitter emoji, which, alas, has become infamous in under 72 hours, and even less amused to discover that much of that fuss was generated by Manchester United themselves.
Ferguson spent a career trying to shield his squad from anything that might be of unhealthy distraction to his players, anything that could needlessly draw attention to them or sharpen the spotlight in what was already a pressure-cooker environment. And so, while “emoji-gate” is not the reason Pogba had a stinker against Liverpool, it certainly succeeded in heightening the pressure on the France midfielder by setting him up for a fall and, in turn, ensured those of a non-United bent had plenty of fun at his expense.
Yet the key difference in this case, and by far the most troubling aspect of the embarrassing episode, is that, for all the backing Pogba gave to the hashtag hullabaloo, it was actually his club who were desperate to promote it, the club who were largely responsible for stirring the pot and putting unnecessary pressure on their own player. This is where the lines between commercial opportunity and what happens on the pitch start to become blurred.
Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho’s predecessor as manager, was publicly critical, at least to begin with, of the volume of commercial commitments at Old Trafford but even he did not encounter something quite like this. And as much as Ferguson tired of the circus around David Beckham, who just happened to be at Old Trafford on Sunday, that particular circus tended to be well away from the pitch.
Pogba knew he was having a poor game so it cannot have helped that every so often #Pogba would appear against a bright white backdrop followed by dozens of different emojis of his head, all the while drawing more attention to the fact the world’s most expensive footballer was struggling to pass to a team-mate or being stifled by Liverpool’s midfield. And after fluffing a great chance and then conceding a penalty, it was easy to sense a player trying even harder to force the issue and just tying himself in more knots as the rest of us winced.
The critics will say an £89 million player should be able to handle such pressure. Perhaps, yes. But everyone can have a bad game. The point is it was extra pressure that did not need to be there and the shame of it is that, for weeks now, Pogba has been playing very well, growing in stature and looking far more comfortable with his exorbitant price-tag. That is not to absolve Pogba of all blame, he was complicit in this claptrap and probably regrets the “let’s have fun and kick some ass at #pogba” statement, assuming he did say it, but he really hasn’t been protected like he should have been.
A story on United’s official website, entitled “Pogba makes Twitter emoji history” - seriously, what has football come to? – took pride of place on the homepage over the weekend and throughout the course of the game, until someone obviously realised it didn’t do them any favours and opted to move it somewhere more discreet. That same story was accompanied by United’s group managing director, Richard Arnold, once again talking up the club’s purported 659 million followers and how “this emoji is another great tool for our supporters to connect with the club through a digital environment, particularly as the excitement builds for Sunday’s match against Liverpool”.
That is the sort of language Ferguson would not understand. Moreover, Ferguson would never have stood for such fanfare around one of his players on the eve of such an important match, just as the club would not have dared to indulge in such a stunt on his watch. Have times changed? Of course. But protecting the players must be the primary aim of any club.
Two years before his retirement as United manager, Ferguson had this to say about the social micro-blogging site: “I don’t understand it but it is something that we, as a club, are looking at because there can be issues attached to it and we don’t want that.”
Ferguson was referring more specifically to players posting messages that might invite trouble and, in turn, cause him a headache he could do without. Well, United created a needless headache and it only added to Pogba’s troubles on a difficult afternoon.