Page last updated at: Thu, 26 May 2011 17:13 PM BST Printable version

Twitter takes over the sporting world

by Josh Clarke

Footballer Wayne Rooney running wearing his Manchester United shirt

At first it seemed a fad, and a controversial one at that. Yet as more and more professional footballers join Twitter, the site’s ability to re-forge the connection between these remote young men and the rest of the world is becoming abundantly clear.

Online playground

The online playground of disillusioned players, misuse was the defining characteristic of the first wave of footballers joining Twitter. Whether it was Darren Bent’s harsh statements to his ex-chairman Daniel Levy at Spurs, Ryan Babel’s doctored photo of referee Howard Webb, or Aldershot Town’s Marvin Morgan wishing death upon his own fans, the uncensored medium of Twitter seemed to be bringing around more trouble than it’s worth.

All the FA could do, initially, was to dole out fines left, right and centre in the hope of quelling what looked to be an ungodly, but ultimately transitory relationship between players, fans and the media.

However, after issuing guidelines in February 2011 formalising the use of social-networking sites, the FA took a leap in the right direction towards turning Twitter into a positive force. Players were warned that should they post ‘threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting’ tweets, disciplinary action would be issued.

Accordingly, players’ usage of the site became more refined – undoubtedly affected by the £20,000 fine slapped on Carlton Cole’s head for allegedly racist remarks made about Ghanaian fans at the friendly against England at Wembley in March – and it’s only in the last month that people are realising the true potential of the site.

Footballers are not robots

Essentially, Twitter has anthropomorphised footballers. The realisation that footballers are not robots and are capable of expressing articulated ideas and, even, a personality is dawning – best exemplified by the case study of Wayne Rooney.

The snarling, alienated public image of Rooney was best encapsulated during the foul-mouthed tirade delivered down the lens of a camera against West Ham a few weeks ago.

Yet, the Liverpudlian took massive strides towards amending his public relations through his decision to open a Twitter account. Within a week, Rooney had more than 300,000 followers. Despite his tweets being littered with woeful grammar, the striker has nevertheless come across unexpectedly well – relaxed, insightful and genuinely engaging. In a picture he uploaded of himself following Manchester United’s unprecedented 19th top flight title win – he shaved the number into his chest hair – a self-deprecating act and one of many steps taken to restore factitious relations between himself and the club’s fans.

Connect with fans

The site has opened up a largely unregulated medium through which footballers can connect instantaneously with fans – slowly undermining the power of any media-driven third party.

This is decreasing the need for heavily sub-edited ghost-written newspaper columns, stultified TV interviews, or PR-driven stunts such as the one delivered last week that expected us to believe that bad-boy Mario Balotelli stormed down to a school to personally confront a head teacher about a truant Manchester City fan’s bullying issues.

It is inevitable that Twitter will allow fans to digitalise the same kind of abuse hurled out on the terraces. Of course, for every Robbie Savage, who retweets the abuse he receives, there’s a Darren Gibson – the Manchester United midfielder who received so much abuse from his own fans that he was forced to disable his Twitter account after 12 hours.

However, in altering the dynamic between players and fans, Twitter is providing a rawer and more distinct sense of communication between the two, which can only be a good thing.



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