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Poster boy for the Twitter generation? (PA)

Why Football Needs Twitter

Chris Harris @chrisharris1975

That’s right. The world’s most popular game, the sport that has broken down borders, bonded generations, transcended cultures, given us adrenaline-fuelled highs and tear-jerking lows, would have no future without some poxy social networking site.

OK, perhaps not. But that same sport looks healthier, more welcoming and certainly harder to turn one’s back on thanks to the advent of Twitter and more specifically the growing army of footballers using it.

Quite simply, Twitter has transformed the relationship between footballers and their fans. It’s made the players lovable again, human again, by diluting the prevailing image of them as spoiled, aloof, greedy prima donnas who have less in common with Joe Public than the Queen.

Consider this: for as long as any of us can remember, footballers have used the media to communicate with supporters. Over the moon? Tell a reporter and he’ll relay it to the readers. Sick as a parrot? Same deal. The referee’s a wanker? No need to shout it from the rooftops or call each of your club’s fans in person. Just grumble into a Dictaphone and your voice will be heard.

Embedded reporters

That system has been in place for decades and it meant that what footballers told their fans relied on a strong working relationship between players and journalists. And, frankly, that sank into the mire long ago.

Perry Groves (cult hero or limited trier, depending on whether you’re looking back wistfully or watching him play) once told me how players and reporters co-existed when he joined Arsenal in the Eighties. To coin a term from modern-day warfare, journalists were effectively “embedded” with the squad during pre-season tours. They wouldn’t kick a ball but they drank with the players, they swapped stories and they shared the same hotels, where they would lurk and listen for tit-bits of tittle-tattle.

Not unlike war reporters, or at least the new breed of war reporter, their proximity to “the story” would be tempered by how much of it they were actually allowed to report, without losing that all-important access. So while war correspondents neglect to mention the worst atrocities, football reporters in the eighties would skirt around the major excesses: the vomiting, the womanising and the booze-fuelled tirades against managers, chairmen and team-mates. But they would get enough “approved” information to break transfer stories and the like, and keep their editors happy.

It all came down to trust: turn a blind eye to the incident you saw last night but did you know that so-and-so is angling for a move to such and such. Clubs didn’t really need press officers because players could control the flow of information themselves in return for access. And journalists played along because, although they couldn’t print everything, they got enough to justify their all-expenses-paid trip to La Manga.

Downhill all the way

That relationship had changed by the time the nation’s press flew out to Italy for the 1990 World Cup. As Pete Davies noted in All Played Out, England’s internationals had been stung by increasingly vitriolic stories in the tabloids. Kelvin MacKenzies stewardship of The Sun, for instance, had made that a more spiteful read. And although his paper emerged victorious from the circulation wars of the times, it came at a cost – less access to increasingly suspicious players.

Sure, England’s stars still spoke to the press – Terry Butcher had a contract with the Daily Star for starters – but the derogatory nature of back-page headlines had driven a wedge between them and reporters. The tabloids screamed for Butcher to be sent home after an altercation with a Tunisian player in a pre-tournament friendly. “Shilts Wilts” greeted Peter Shilton’s mistake against Uruguay. Davies himself quotes the chief sports writer of the now defunct Today newspaper: “[England manager Bobby] Robson’s a cunt. I hope they don’t qualify. Terrible team.” What hope did England have of a good press if that was the prevailing mood among the media?

It has been downhill all the way ever since. The fear of being stitched up by the media has pushed footballers away from journalists or at least precluded them from revealing what they really think. And the advent of 24-hour rolling news – much of it mind-numbing, sensationalist guff – forced players even further into their shells in the knowledge that any mildly thought-provoking remark or show of emotion could fill those bulletins for days.

Football clubs have responded by media training their players to within an inch of their lives, with the purpose of getting them to say something without actually saying anything thus fulfilling media duties without rocking the boat. It has worked: these days, if you put a Dictaphone or a camera in a player’s face, the chances are you’ll get clichés and platitudes even from the more intelligent ones.

You can understand why they do it but, ultimately, it’s the fans who get short-changed. They want to know what makes their heroes tick; instead they get sullen, defensive soundbites. Throw in astronomical wages and off-field misdemeanours and it’s easy to see how players are deemed aloof and, even worse, “all the same”. If Ashley Cole is caught with his pants down, cackling as he burns £50 notes (I don’t think this has actually happened – yet), his fellow footballers get tarred with the same brush because they don’t raise their head above the parapet.

Speak the same language

That’s where Twitter comes in. Dictaphones and cameras might not work but put a player in front of his own laptop or smartphone in the comfort of his own home or the team hotel, and those barriers come down. Letting them loose on Twitter has finally allowed their personalities to shine through.

Now I don’t really care if Darren Bent likes Nando’s or Jack Wilshere plays pool while watching the big game on his big screen. Knowing what Cesc Fabregas had for lunch doesn’t enrich my life. But then I’m in my mid-thirties and football had me in her clutches long ago. My soul was sacrificed to the beautiful game around the time Eder fizzed a volley past a motionless Rinat Dasayev at the 1982 World Cup. But if you’re ten and football is vying for your attention with any number of alternatives, the opportunity to interact with the men who matter could be the difference between a passing interest and a lifelong love of the game.

It’s hard to quantify how much it means to a young fan to interact with their heroes and feel that their favourite player speaks the same language, shares the same sense of humour and enjoys the same Saturday night talent show. And if that same hero re-tweets their comment… well, let’s just say it’s something my generation never had.

In many ways Wilshere is the poster-boy for football’s Twitter generation. Sure, he speaks out of turn occasionally – which teenager doesn’t? – but crucially Twitter is not just a forum for his opinions. Wilshere asks his followers for their updates, re-tweets generously and keeps that connection strong in the good times and the bad. Within hours of Arsenal’s Carling Cup calamity he took to Twitter to commiserate with fans and offer an apology. Saying sorry won’t retrieve the trophy but it’s nice to know he cares. You don’t get “heartfelt” in post-match grabs on the telly, that’s for sure.

“You have to take the positive and negative reaction from the fans,” Wilshere told me. “It’s good to get their opinions on incidents and I enjoy tweeting them as much as they enjoy tweeting me.” If the former England captain John Terry represents the dark side of footballers – detached, disgraced and behaving as if he’s above the law – the potential future England captain Wilshere is at the vanguard of a new, accessible, interactive generation.

Back from the brink

So after years of relying on reporters to relay their delight and disgust, players can now cut out the middleman and go straight to the supporters. Every tweet can take power away from journalists whether the player is setting the agenda, joining the debate or even putting the record straight in the wake of speculation or misrepresentation.

A quick tweet from the subject of a transfer rumour can sabotage a tabloid’s back-page lead and instantaneously appease his worried fans. We’ve already seen Steven Pienaar use Twitter to announce his recent switch from Everton to Tottenham. Don’t be surprised if more reporters are trumped by tweeting footballers when the transfer window reopens.

Is Twitter dangerous? Of course it is. Anyone with a big enough name and a big enough mouth can conjure negative headlines and there’s always the threat that clubs will gag their players if sensitive or salacious information seeps into their social networking. But the obvious dangers of footballers using Twitter are surely outweighed by the benefits because it has transformed the way they are perceived. At a time when spiralling wages and off-field excesses had widened the gulf between those who played and those who watched, Twitter has brought that relationship back from the brink.

The barriers that went up in the late Eighties are slowing coming down. And that can only help as the world’s No 1 sport tries to woo the next generation of fans.

Chris is a veteran of Sports.com and Teletext, who hosted the first episode of The Sport Collective podcast

One Response to “Analysis: Social Media”

  1. Mark S April 7, 2011

    Nice piece Chris – and perfect timing after Rio Ferdinand’s “stay on your feet” comment after last night’s game. Clearly he was all over Twitter the night before. It’s like being in a secret club!

    Reply

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