To tweet or not to tweet

A cyber troll, earlier

A cyber troll, earlier

There’s a question that’s been gnawing away at me for a while now: why would a professional sportsperson – or any celebrity for that matter – maintain a Twitter account? A vibrant social media presence seems to be an expected and accepted method of communicating with the public, but when it so often invites negative comment from ‘trolls’, the whole exercise seems to be fraught with too much aggravation.

Twitter, above all other social media sites, seems to attract a disproportionate number and level of vitriolic comments from its users. What drives this is usually a complex mix of jealousy, tribalism, idiocy and the ubiquitousness of the smart phone.

Take the recent example of Lee Westwood. What was notable for this tale of sporting cyber-bullying was that he chose (on the back of a conviction-aiding shandy or two, no doubt) to strike back. When abuse and ridicule is heaped upon star performers in the normally genteel world of golf, then something is badly wrong with society.

Football is often considered to be in the vanguard of advertising society’s ills and, indeed, it is in the cash rich super-stardom, otherworldly plain of the top-flight football where Twitter really gets out of control. For many, following a game via both TV and Twitter is an ingrained pastime. To do this without going bonkers one must choose who they follow very, very carefully. Any deviation from a stringently vetted set of followers into the broader Twittersphere will quickly reinforce the suspicion that the vast majority of football fans should be locked up for their own health.

Some of these people see getting a rise out of a famous, otherwise aloof, footballer as almost as much of a sport as the game itself. Any moron can self-justify their abuse of footballers with the catch all excuse of ‘banter’; that horrible term which encompasses inane, lowest common denominator analysis between experts on the pundits’ sofa as well as spiteful ridicule by a lonely man sitting at home in his boxer shorts typing away on an iPad.

What possible reason could there be to mock this man?

What possible reason could there be to mock this man?

Poor Michael Owen. Who did he hurt? Maybe some Newcastle United fans’ noses were put out of joint by his expensive injury-ravaged time on Tyneside. For sure, Liverpool fans don’t easily forgive a former player turning out for Manchester United. But the mocking tweets he received in response to his retirement genuinely saddened me. This is a man who is behind only Sir Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves in the England goal scoring charts for heaven’s sake.

He must have a thick skin. Certainly thicker than that worn by Darren Gibson, who famously lasted all of four hours on Twitter before the abuse became too much and he sensibly jacked it in.

The Ball Control guide to surviving on Twitter

There appear to be two separate approaches to maintaining a Twitter account in the face of unavoidable hostility. One option is to post anodyne comments along the lines of “great win from the boys today, the fans were brilliant as always, blah, blah, blah” and steadfastly refuse to interact on any other level with followers (other than to block anyone who gets a bit nasty).

The second option is to don the metaphorical Wellingtons and wade into online debate with ill-informed nincompoops. This is the preferred modus operandi of a minority of the blue-tick brigade; the likes of Joey Barton, Piers Morgan (not technically a sportsman, he wishes) and – God love him – David Warner. It obviously takes a particular type of individual to choose this course.

Probably the only sportsperson who successfully navigates a way between these two options is Graeme Swann. He has the wit and brashness to call out ignoramuses while also posting pithily waggish updates.

However, it’s also in @Swannyg66’s Twitter stream that we can most evidently see the reasons why sportsmen and sportswomen put up with all the inevitable hassle. Endorsements of Jaguar cars and high-end golf courses must be a decent little side-earner for a man with over half a million followers. Suddenly I don’t feel so sorry for Michael Owen after all.

Mistletoe and Sambucas

Football and Christmas do not mix

Football and Christmas do not mix

The QPR team’s Christmas party has predictably been cancelled. Harry Redknapp, of course, has got form in this area, having banned his then Tottenham players from holding a party in 2009. On that occasion, Robbie Keane arranged one anyway – “Spurs’ Xmas party shame” was how The Sun put it. Spurs went on to qualify for the Champions League that season.

Harry wasn’t always such a Scrooge. Back in 2005 he bemoaned his Pompey team’s lack of interest in their festive bash: “I told them to go out and have fun, but I hear they were tucked up in bed by midnight. Some of our foreign lads didn’t even turn up. Times have changed.”

The times Harry was referring to have changed not just due to the influence of enlightened foreign (players and coaches) attitudes towards fitness, but also because of an increasingly intrusive media spotlight on such shenanigans.

Nowadays, most teams are encouraged to mix and gel at Christmas parties without the aid of an alcoholic social lubricant. Modern football brands are understandably keen to ensure that their players’ physical conditions are not dented going into a busy period.

Even worse, think of the PR! The increasingly pious football fan is no longer willing to tolerate the sight of inhibition-lowered footballers running amok. Such incidents are almost inevitable when a group of young men living under huge professional pressure comes into contact with booze. Add to that a ravenous press corps eager to regurgitate such tales to the masses and it’s understandable that a team underperforming on the pitch – such as QPR – wishes to avoid the risk of its players disgracing themselves further off it.

Looking back into the archives of Christmases past shows us exactly what can go wrong.

Let’s start in an obvious place: Joey Barton. While at Manchester City, Barton mingled with his team-mates at their 2004 Christmas party, attempting to burn holes in their fancy dress costumes. When a youth player tried to return the favour to Barton’s outfit, Barton stubbed his lit cigar into the player’s eye. He was fined £60,000 for the incident by City. It’s doubtful that Barton would today choose the same costume as he did eight years ago; he attended the party that day dressed as Jimmy Savile.

Rio Ferdinand, a man who has worn the armband for club and country, invited over 100 girls from model agencies to Manchester United’s Christmas party in 2007. Witnesses attested to players’ “lechery”, “cattle-market groping”, “boozing” and “fighting”. Female guests were reportedly reduced to tears by the lascivious behaviour of some and the “out-of-control” atmosphere which culminated in Jonny Evans being accused of rape. Earlier in the evening, fuelled by sambucas and pink champagne, Wayne Rooney approached two of the young women, one of whom was an undercover reporter. When told that they had met at university, he reportedly observed: “I bet you two were naughty together at uni … Did you do threesomes? You know, two girls and a lad?”

Liverpool's Spice Boys: when men were men

Liverpool’s Spice Boys: when men were men

For the ultimate example of how times have changed we turn to Jamie Carragher. Coming towards the end of a long career, Jamie is exalted on Merseyside as the consummate professional; one who has maximised his abilities by adhering to the strict training regimens laid down by cosmopolitan managers such as Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez. However, in 1998 Jamie was just a rookie, not part of Liverpool’s infamous Spice Boys clique, but it was he who – dressed as the Hunchback of Notre Dame – was photographed by a News of the World journalist with a stripper and a can of whipped cream, before having sex in front of other revellers.

So far, so British. But, bizarrely, Nicolas Anelka – hardly the epitome of bonhomie – is on record as being a keen supporter of the traditional footballers’ Christmas party: “Not only does it give us the chance to mix as a team, but fans also come up and say hello. It’s good – it’s English.” The Frenchman’s stance was put to the test at Man City’s 2004 Christmas bash (one hell of a do, by the sounds of it). Anelka had recently expressed his desire to “play for a bigger club” shortly before the party and while out with the lads that night was punched in the face by a disgruntled fan. “It’s how we say ‘Merry Christmas’ to miserable City footballers in Moss Side,” claimed his assailant.

It all sounds like Harry’s got right on his side this time. The sight of Djibril Cissé gallivanting around the West End dressed as Lady Gaga might be a bit much for QPR fans to take while their team has yet to register a win in the league this season.