In the return of the Roker Ramble, Luke Bowley looks at why all footballers should be banned from Twitter... except Xabi Alonso.
Is it often the case in modern British football that older supporters will feel nostalgic towards a time, thirty to forty years earlier, where those that played the game were more in touch with those that came to watch them. The players came from the same council estates, went to the same drinking holes and, while they were usually better off than the paying punters, still weren't the far-off superstars from another planet they appear to be today. Even their names made them sound like characters you'd find in a working men's club; nicknames that matched their rough style of play like 'Chopper', 'Bites-yer-legs', 'Facechinner' and 'The Big Bastard'.
As football has grown, with the injection of cash into the game and the introduction of modernized youth systems, this connection between supporter and player has all but been lost. No longer are footballers discovered late, or go through the system of YTS/apprenticeships as before. Now they're found at very young ages and signed up to club academies where they learn their trade and, in some cases, are even educated. As such they often grow up in a bubble, their teenage years revolving around football exclusively. Add that to the astronomical wage increases over the last 20-25 years, and it's fair to say that the modern footballer doesn't have a great deal in common with the wider public. For several years, the only time a supporter was likely to get close to their heroes was if they went to have their shirts signed at organised events in the club shop.
However, in recent years there's arguably been something of a shift in the relationship between fan and player. As social media has infected all our lives, allowing us to finally achieve humanity's long sought-after goal of having 24-hour rolling coverage of all the latest funny pictures of cats, supporters now have the ability to interact with their favourite players. Twitter has the advantage of cutting out the middle man, so that we know have the opportunity to really get to know them as people, away from the club 'airbrushing' that typically comes with the media. Clubs may try and introduce guidelines for their employees, but that's hard to enforce when players can tweet without have to check with those above them first. Clubs can't exactly intercept tweets and influence them like they can with media interviews. It could well be that the age of social media allows us to return to the era of fans and players interaction being common, closing the gap between the two despite the differences in social status.
This is the ideal. The reality, of course, is something entirely different.
The recent James McClean twitter scandal (a phrase that I could slot into any other article, past, present or future, without the worry of it not being topical) shows the sad truth; that players and social media just really aren't mean for each other. The Irishman, only a part-time footballer anyway as he has a second job trading livestock for magic beans, and his numerous incidents of controversy reveals that our professionals just aren't designed to have opinions on things. As mentioned earlier, they grow up focusing on little else but football, interacting mostly with each other. The repeated scandals they get themselves into shows that they have no idea how to act in actual society, nor do they need to build a personality. Why would they need to? They're going to turn professional one day, and that will take care of all their needs.
If they're not causing controversy and receiving death threats, like McClean, then they just come across as bland. Take, for example, Vincent Kompany. He come across as a pretty nice man, but read any of his tweets and you find he just spouts the same clichés that footballers say in media interviews anyway, defeating the purpose of social networking as a way of cutting out the middle man. On the few occasions where a footballer proves himself to be more than a bland, club spokesman with genuine personality, they use it as a shameless vehicle for self-promotion. It's at this stage where I would talk about Joey Barton, but that's exactly what he wants, so we won't discuss it any further. At their worst (such as with the likes of Emmanuel Frimpong and Leon Knight), players on Twitter epitomise the worst that 'LAD culture' has to offer, with misogynistic behaviour and witless 'banter' being the order of the day.
It's clear the social media experiment in football has failed miserably. Instead of closing the gap between supporter and player, all that has happened is reminded us all just how hard footballers are, generally, to like as people. There is no other option but to call for a ban on players from using Twitter, effective immediately.
Of course, it's only fair that they have some form of representation. After all, Twitter is a huge social platform, in which most groups are able to get their views out in some way. Therefore, I'd be willing to allow one footballer to represent his entire profession, and that footballer is Xabi Alonso. Alonso is the only player in the game whose Twitter feed has proved him to be more likeable than I had previously thought. He could tell us the latest gripes his fellow professionals have with the game, inter-cut with impeccable music recommendations and commentary on the latest Mad Men episode. Having the Spaniard as their spokesman will no doubt improve the image of modern footballers in the eye of the general public.
Some of you may have noticed a contradiction in this article. I talk about how Twitter allows footballers the possibility of interacting directly with fans, of allowing us to see them as people, away from the editing of the media, and then bemoan those, such as McClean, who actually offer genuine opinions, and come across as more than bland, club drones. The problem is, that when footballers actually do show themselves as people, we realise just how far they actually are from the supporters. We realise just how dislikeable, or bland, a lot of them actually are. So let's not feel nostalgic about a time where players and fans were one, and instead let's just focus on what they're doing on the pitch, where they genuinely are our loveable heroes.