We often criticise the modern day footballer for being too far removed from the common man or woman who helps make them what they are. "Bloggs is a prima donna!" we hear people cry, "he's got more money than sense!" While in some cases this may be true, and I'll rerfrain from flinging mud at this point, there is one social networking site that is trying to help buck the trend.
Twitter, for those of you just climbing out from under a rock, was founded in 2006 and allows users to create an account and tell the world what's on their mind using a maximum of 140 characters. The big deal here is you can 'follow' anyone in the world - that is, see what top celebrities, politicians, sportsmen and women, popstars are talking about - as well as interact with them.
And here's where the intrigue lies. Whilst normally, the likes Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Babel wouldn't give you, dear reader, a second glance if you saw them in the street, on Twitter, if you've got something interesting to say, you may catch their attention. I myself have had one of my tweets 're-tweeted' - shared to the rest of Twitter - by Robbie Savage. Granted, it was nothing more than shameless pandering over a sale he was promoting, but it's this kind of interaction that brings the fans closer to the players.
It's not just the cream of the Premier League crop that are on Twitter though. In amongst the likes of Jack Wilshere, Kevin Davies and Jonas Gutierrez are those further down the footballing ladder - Marcus Bean, Ritchie Humphreys and Clinton Morrison also roam the virtual lands telling you exactly what they think. If you ever wanted to know what a League One midfielder has had for breakfast, Twitter is the place to go. But of course, it's these kind of unique situations that followers of the Football League will appreciate.
So as Twitter grows, and more footballers join up to the revolution, their visibility in the public eye increases. Rio Ferdinand, for example, has over 390,000 followers, a figure that grows daily. Whereas normally most players would be out in Chinawhites/Blu Bambu/your seedy overpriced nightclub of choice, either flanked by failed reality TV stars or chinning DJ's, Twitter has opened up the possibility for them to tell you about all of this before the press find out.
I'm joking, of course. Half the world's journalists have Twitter accounts as well. And this is where problems have begun to arise.
As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Most football clubs these days offer their players media training, so that their players know just how to deal with that annoying hack from the local press who won't keep quiet about the restaurant meeting he saw the other day. What clubs don't yet regulate, however, is their players activity on sites like Twitter, and recently, that's led to some newsworthy exchanges.
Darren Bent set the trend, no pun intended, a couple of years ago when his frustrations boiled over in virtual form. Bent, then at Tottenham, was looking for a way out of his contract, and with a number of clubs interested, looked set for a move. But Spurs chairman Daniel Levy stalled on Bent's move in a clear bid to bump up the value of the transfer, leaving Bent fuming. “Seriously getting p***** off now,” was the message posted by Bent, followed by “Why can’t anything be simple. It’s so frustrating hanging round doing jack s***.”
After later stating that “Sunderland are not the problem in the slightest,” there then followed more stringent criticism of Levy. “Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go stoke NO do I wanna go sunderland YES so stop f****** around levy [sic].” The story was picked up by media outlets including the Daily Telegraph, forcing Levy into an embarrassing climbdown.
Bent was eventually sold to Sunderland for £10 million, but the whole ordeal could've easily been avoided if Tottenham had taken the step of regulating what the player posted. Did the club see this as too big a step to take if they interfered in Bent's private life? Was Twitter not seen as a worry anyway? Perhaps, but just a word in the player's ear may have been enough to prevent the embarrassment that followed. Ironically, Bent deleted his Twitter account soon after because of what had happened - only to create a new one. You couldn't make it up.
Recently, though, the problem of footballers using Twitter has cropped up again. The more prominent of the stories has been Newcastle's Jose Enrique, who was admonised by boss Alan Pardew for informing his followers that he was injured prior to United's game at Tottenham over Christmas. Although the tweet in question was nothing more than a response to a concerned fan asking if it was true that he was indeed injured, Pardew indicated that the club would be taking steps to monitor the Twitter accounts of its players, which include Danny Simpson, Wayne Routledge, Nile Ranger and Jonas Gutierrez. After all, Pardew reasoned, it'd be detrimental to the team if they were to gain an advantage by planning ahead against an advertised omission.
Contrary to popular belief, Harry Redknapp does not scour Twitter on matchdays.
Enrique then informed his followers that he'd be deleting his account because of the trouble he'd caused. Again, this appears to be another case of players simply being mis-informed about what they can and can't Tweet on the site by their clubs. Indeed, Enrique's previous tweets weren't controversial in any way - they seemed to revolve around beating Simpson at FIFA. If Pardew, or someone at Newcastle, had set out guidelines prior, one would have to assume relations between Enrique and the club wouldn't have been affected.
Further down the Football League pyramid, Aldershot striker Marvin Morgan was busy getting into a spot of bother over his Twitter account too. After the 27 year old was subjected to abuse during the Shots 2-1 defeat to lowly Hereford last week, Morgan promptly logged on to Twitter to say "Like to thank the fans who booed me off the pitch. Where's that going to get you! I hope you all die." Aldershot responded by banning, fining and transfer listing their former number 10, who has since joined Dagenham and Redbridge on loan - some punishment, considering the Daggers play in the league above Aldershot. In this instance however, it's impossible to blame Aldershot for not regulating what Morgan was posting, rather, a dash of common sense from the player is all that was needed.
Ryan Babel & Glen Johnson
And to complete the trio of Twitter turnips, step forward Liverpool's Ryan Babel, who is set to be investigated by the FA for posting a mock up of referee Howard Webb wearing a Manchester United shirt on his Twitter page. Webb gave a controversial penalty in the Reds 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford in the F.A Cup, and an obviously incensed Babel clearly saw fit to express his anger on Photoshop. Or something. Babel joins team-mate Glen Johnson in the Twitter Hall of Shame, after the England right back launched an attack on Paul Merson on his page. Merson had criticised Johnson on Soccer Saturday, leading the defender to snap.
"Comments from alcoholic drug abusers are not really gonna upset me and who is Paul Merson to judge players, he was average at the best of times," Johnson wrote.
"The only reason he's on that show is coz he gambled all his money away. The clown!"
Johnson was forced to delete his comments after a number of people complained, but in response to the reaction to his previous comments, Johnson later wrote on Twitter: "I dunno wot all the hype is about.
"People who give their opinion all the time should accept that 1 day someone else will give their own opinion."
West Ham star has also fallen foul of Twitter's soaring popularity with some ill-advised comments during the England vs. Ghana friendly a few months ago. Cole suggested that the only reason Ghana had been invited to play at Wembley was so that immigration officials could enter the stadium during the game and detain the visiting fans.
Not too smart, but Cole later stated that he was merely joking. The FA didn't see the funny side, warned and fined the striker, and sent out yet another message to footballers who love to Tweet: be sensible. It's all well and good sending out such a message, but when the FA struggle to keep their own house in order, the least of their worries should be social media.
Newcastle midfielder was also the subject of Twitter controversy, though to this day, no-one's really sure exactly what happened. Smith doesn't have Twitter, but a fake account under his name was apparently taken over by a spiteful ex-girlfriend who began tweeting intimate details of her relationship with the Newcastle midfielder.
After cussing the former Leeds man halfway around the new world, the account was eventually deleted. Though the woman's identity was never revealed or verified, I believe the whole ordeal was probably quite embarassing to Smith, who may or may not have even heard of Twitter previously.
Thinking before you type has to be considered essential
All of these examples, coupled with those in previous years involving players like Danny Gabbidon and Eljero Elia, seem to point towards Twitter becoming a growing problem that football clubs need to address. As technology advances day by day, and players get access to social networking sites such as Twitter via on-demand devices like Blackberrys, the likelihood of tweets that contain sensitive information or inappropriate content grows. More and more footballers are joining Twitter simply because it's a 'cool' thing to do, and everyone does it. The catch is, the majority of people that use Twitter are people like me and you, people whose regular updates are unlikely to have any major impact on our lives outside of boring our friends. When you're a footballer, however, you've got an image to maintain - you're an ambassador for your club, and football as a whole. Thus, thinking before you type has to be considered essential.
This isn't a call for footballers to be censored on Twitter by any means. As stated, Twitter is one of the few links that fans have with the stars nowadays, and in the majority of cases, the players that Tweet are simply telling you what they're doing during the day, the kind of thing we use Twitter for. It's the few ruining it for the many - and as the media begin to take these online misdemeanours more seriously, so should the football clubs. That doesn't mean blanket bans, but merely a careful thought out set of guidelines that shouldn't be created to punish, but more to encourage.
The ECB used to tell its cricketers to 'treat the media as an opportunity, not as a threat' - that should apply to Twitter as well. Until clubs start to take the site seriously, these sorts of incidents will continue. And until the site is accepted as a part of a footballers life, they're the ones that will keep getting their fingers burnt.
Tweet - your Twitter follower will thank you for sharing