IF you had been bold enough to predict, just a few short years back, that one of the most influential, provocative and potentially dangerous developments in modern football would be something called Twitter – an inescapable, 24/7 messaging service, delivered in grammatically-challenged 140-character bursts – they would have locked you up and thrown away your mobile phone.
Never mind the dual impact on football of satellite television, which has contrived to bankroll the game’s biggest clubs, while at the same time alienating traditionalists and consigning 3pm kick-offs to the dim and distant past. The technological innovation that now divides opinion, on and off the pitch, is the online social networking service that has 974 million registered users.
To tweet or not to tweet, that is the question for footballers. To be fair, that is the question for most of us – even if it feels as though the tide is turning irresistibly in Twitter’s favour – but, in football’s case, the dilemma is complicated by celebrity. Add to that the emotion of sport, as well as the beautiful game’s Neanderthal element, and the medium’s double-edged sword is sharpened considerably.
Barely a week goes by when its undoubted attractions are not counter-balanced by controversy. Last week, Twitter attracted another high-profile critic when Ally McCoist, the Rangers manager, said that he was considering banning his players from using it next season. Not only did he suggest that there were more negatives than positives, he struggled to identify any of the latter. “There has to be an upside to it because that many people use it, but if someone could enlighten me, that would be great,” said the manager.
McCoist’s frustration comes after Steve Simonsen, the Rangers goalkeeper, felt the need to close his Twitter account. Simonsen, whose mistake led to Dundee United’s third goal in the Scottish Cup semi-final, made the decision after he and his 11-year-old son had been subjected to “mindless abuse” from some of the player’s 15,400 followers. The goalkeeper tweeted: “His first ever trip to Ibrox to watch his dad ends up with him receiving abuse because I included him in a tweet. I’m sorry but I’m not tolerating it.”
While some replied with messages of support for the reserve goalkeeper, McCoist was not so sympathetic. He argued that Simonsen would have been better advised to avoid Twitter in the first place. He is tired of telling his players to beware the perils of social networks, some of which expose them to people and places they would otherwise strenuously avoid.
The darkest corners of Twitter should be negotiated only with the thickest of skins. What happened to Simonsen has also happened to Jonny Russell, Richie Brittain, Fernando Ricksen and countless others in Scotland alone. “You won’t see ten in a row” was the message posted on former Rangers player Ricksen’s account after he announced that he had motor-neurone disease.
Neither is it just fans abusing players. There are players abusing fans, fans abusing fans, and players abusing players. Rowan Vine and Neil Lennon had a go at each other a few months back. John Gemmell, the Stenhousemuir striker, called McCoist a “p***k”. And then there’s Leigh Griffiths, one of many who seem to think that racist abuse is somehow acceptable online.
Sometimes, though, the problem is not so much abuse as ill-judged, inappropriate remarks by players with not enough respect for the game that made them famous in the first place. When Kris Commons posted pictures of a lads’ trip to Las Vegas, soon after he had retired from international football to spend more time with his family, it suggested a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium.
Like many of football’s problems, it is also society’s problem. The sheer scale of the phenomenon and the speed at which it has taken over our lives is such that we have not come to terms with it yet. Too many are still fooled by the illusion of anonymity. Too many have yet to grasp that they are accountable for every letter and digit tapped out in the privacy of their own home.
The learning process is important, even for selfish reasons. When Helen Flanagan tweeted that her partner, Scott Sinclair, was away on holiday, she was locked in a utility room by three intruders who burgled her £2.2m mansion. More subtly, there are fears that the long afternoons of a lonely footballer are too easily filled by Twitter’s addictive qualities.
McCoist sees it as detrimental to a player’s game, a distraction and, worse still, a potentially inflammatory addition to the Old Firm dynamic, but is he right? Without wishing to play down the pitfalls of Twitter, are those negatives enough to outweigh the freedom of expression that underpins it? Yes, Joey Barton is an insulting presence on the medium, but without it, he would not also have led an effective online petition for victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
There is another point. At a time when too many players and managers hide, or are persuaded to hide, behind the protective cover of a club’s PR machine, here is a tool that repairs the broken relationship between football and its fans. It brings faceless bureaucrats and overpaid professionals closer to the game’s lifeblood. Perhaps that is why Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive who closed his account in 2012, has re-opened it. Lennon has also indicated that he will end his four-month sabbatical.
It could be argued that Twitter is itself a PR device – how long before it is also corrupted by sponsorship and product placement? – but it grants its users direct access to a captive audience. If Lennon or Regan have a point to make, or a newspaper headline to quibble about, they can do so on their own terms. They can reach 150,000 followers without the complication of a middleman.
The problem is not Twitter, but the people who use it. The solution is not just (multi) media training for players, it is a broader body of work that engages the community so that football fulfils its potential to educate. Anti-social behaviour is unacceptable everywhere, be it on Twitter, in the newspapers or across the white lines of a football pitch.
Let’s not talk of banning Twitter. If players prefer to opt out, as Simonsen has done, that is their prerogative, but let’s not deny them the right. If we did, what would that tell us about the game? That it is not civilised enough to enjoy the freedoms afforded other sports? That dragging its offensive minority into the 21st century is a lost cause? If football is too tribal, too boorish, too antagonistic and dangerous to be given free rein on Twitter, then it has bigger problems than Twitter to address.