Wednesday manager Dave Jones has made known on several occasions his stance on social media networks, regarding them as the “scourge of football”. The Owls boss made the comments seemingly in relation to the information his own players were posting on sites such as twitter. It is easy to appreciate Jones frustration as, last season, former loan striker Jay Bothroyd insulted the club’s fans, Reda Johnson released information about his fitness, and more recently a video emerged from the team hotel that showed more of one player than I had any need to see.
Notwithstanding the above, I still believe social networks can be useful, within professional football. Level headed professionals who engage fans sensibly and importantly know the kind of comment to avoid responding to, further their own personal fan base and the image of the club, at least amongst its own supporters. While they are no longer Wednesday players, Chris Lines, Richard O’Donnell and Ryan Lowe certainly fit that mould, and came over as some of the nice guys of football. Jermaine Johnson took to twitter to issue a swift apology for the moment of madness that led to his sending off, in the recent League Cup defeat to Rotherham.
As a Wednesday fan, and more generally a football fan – as this issue is not specific to the club – it is not the players’ use of social media networks that concerns me most it is my fellow supporters.
In the digital age football fans have unprecedented access to the players online. Almost as soon as the players are off the pitch one or more of them will take to twitter and post something about the game and is likely to draw a reply from some fans. Of course everyone linked to a football club will hope that such conversation will take the form of a celebration between fan and player. However, if the result or performance has been less favourable the interaction can be more fractious.
I would never suggest that footballers should be immune from criticism but there are fairer more traditional ways to express it than the faceless medium of the internet. I for one would not like to get home from my day job to find my own twitter clogged up with work customers, telling me how badly I had done my job that day.
The concern is the impact that such criticism might have on younger players at the club. After every defeat certain players’ timelines are awash with criticism and abuse – two words which have separate and distinct meanings. Most clubs will introduce youngsters with a few games in the team and few games out of the team here and there to attempt to shield them, few teams have the luxury of doing this into a side more or less guaranteed of success regardless. As such the confidence of young footballer’s, especially those playing for clubs that attract sizeable crowds, can be fragile.
Two of the biggest targets at Wednesday have been 22 year old Gary Madine and 21 year old Rhys McCabe. Both players have now decided to cease their use of twitter due to the nature of the messages they have received. When McCabe joined the club, his first few appearances were met with approval from on Wednesday’s online fans. There was praise of his passing, vision, control and guile. He played less in the second half of last season when a bit more fight was preferred in midfield as Wednesday prepared themselves for the relegation scrap they found themselves in.
Madine was a hero in Wednesday’s 2011/12 side that won promotion from League One scoring 18 goals along the way. Former manager Gary Megson said of Madine: “Gary has everything: size, touch, goals” and went on to memorably praise Madine’s control of a clearance by former Owls keeper Nicky Weaver as: “like a butterfly with sore feet landing on [Madine’s] foot”.
Madine has, like McCabe, featured less than he might have expected to over the last season. That said both players are young and adapting to life in the Championship. Both are of real quality and promise and will continue to improve. Neither have lost their ability overnight. The difficulty is that playing the odd game, or odd few minutes, here and there reduces the opportunity for the necessary acclimatisation to the rigours of the division. In short: fans need to be patient with them. They could turn out to be pair of gems for the Owls.
Both players look short on confidence and this issue cannot be helped by some of the messages that they were receiving on twitter. Football always has been a game of opinions and as someone who likes to write about the sport I would not have that any other way. Traditionally, however, it has not been so easy to put those opinions directly to the players, or so difficult for them to ignore them. After all the opinions on twitter, and in blogs, are from laymen who were never good enough to play the sport. This does not invalidate the opinion merely because it belongs to an observer rather than a participant. That said the only person who should be having a word in the ear of a player is his club’s manager who has, most likely, experience of life a professional player and an idea of the player’s situation. Madine and McCabe might do well to stick to their word and steer clear of twitter and focus on the opinions that matter.
However when those who post critical messages to players, say if they cannot take it they should not be on twitter it is a poor excuse. Just because there is an opportunity to do something it does not necessarily make it a good idea: Like a long walk and a short plank.
Players on social networks should remember that of the handful of people calling them every name under the sun, on twitter after a match, only maybe one or two would have been bothered to wait outside the players’ entrance to do it before twitter. They should also remember that if there are twenty-something thousand fans at a game then there is a massive silent majority that do not think like those who abuse on twitter, and are simply supporters who support.