How Twitter changed the rules
My dad tells a story of the time he saw Chelsea's Roy Bentley standing on a crowded Tube platform after a game, firing off autographs for a group of young fans before bidding a hearty farewell and boarding his train. Bentley, bear in mind, was the club's star striker and would skipper them to their first League title only a couple of years later, in 1954-55.
I tell you this not because I thought you might fancy a whimsical skip down Memory Lane but because it is revealing in two ways: first, it demonstrates there was a time when our sporting gods lived among us, not in Versace-themed palaces behind 12-foot gates; second, while the gods of yesteryear were revered and adored, those who revered and adored them kept a dignified distance.
You are more likely to bump into Princess Michael of Kent doing her big shop in Lidl than you are to see current Chelsea captain John Terry riding the 1730 from Fulham Broadway, so other-worldly have today's sporting stars become: buffered by media men and agents, over-marketed and over-branded, and this is where Twitter comes in.
"In the old days, you would see your heroes down the pub or they would live in the same street," says neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. "Nowadays these people are so well off and hidden behind every conceivable kind of barrier. Twitter is a way of getting near them, or having the illusion of getting near them and how their minds are working. Although sometimes it's not an illusion because they're quite indiscreet in the things they say."
Roy Bentley (left) jogs through Chelsea with team-mates Eric Parsons and Ken Armstrong
An irony for sports journalists is that while it has never been more difficult to pin down sport's biggest names and wring anything vaguely interesting from them, along comes Twitter and all of a sudden they are splattering the minutiae of their lives across the internet for all to see. Not only that, they are letting slip things they would never in a million years reveal in a controlled interview situation.
Last week, we had Liverpool's Ryan Babel posting a mocked-up photo of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt (for which he has been fined £10,000 by the FA), while the cream of QPR were wishing ill things to happen to Blackburn forward El Hadji Diouf - 30-odd years of "sick as a parrot" buried by an avalanche of tweets.
"Sportspeople tend to be very emotional," adds Dr Lewis, who has conducted studies of sportspeople's behaviour. "They take offence, they're very sensitive and they tend to blast off in all directions when they're in an emotional state."
So another irony of Twitter is that while it affords sportspeople an element of control, allowing them to bypass irksome journalists who might twist their message, it also takes control away. Whereas a year ago Babel might have let off steam to a mate or his girlfriend, now he has this very convenient - and very tempting - tool at his fingertips that allows him to sound off to the world. As the comedian Frankie Boyle sagely observed: "Twitter has replaced muttering to yourself on the sofa."
Explains Stade Francais and England rugby star James Haskell (Twitter followers: 11,641; sample tweet: "Sitting in a bank with my old man while my mum is kicking the a** out of my Adidas account on the Champs-Elysées"): "You're not looking anyone in the eye when you write stuff on Twitter.
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"You're not directly engaging with anyone, so there's no pressure, no embarrassment or control. Twitter is one of the few social mediums you can control yourself. What I say to a journalist might bear very little resemblance to what appears in their paper the next day.
"But what you've got to realise with Twitter is that you can make a comment like 'I love trees' and someone out there will be offended."
Haskell is no stranger to Twitter controversy, having tweeted his disappointment at being omitted by England in 2009 and again after being dropped by Stade last year, and concedes he has had to become more Twitter-savvy. Perhaps he could patent an 'app' whereby he hears Martin Johnson's voice every time his trigger finger starts hovering: "Stay away from the 'tweet' button..."
The raft of Twitter wrecks over the past two years has revealed a technological and philosophical gulf between players and coaches, with the behaviour of players - young, famous, at the cutting edge of society - leaving their coaches - older, often less famous, set in their ways - baffled.
"Twitter does my head in - and you can quote me on that. I could talk about it all day," said QPR boss Neil Warnock when I gave him a call.
"Perfect," I said.
"I don't want to talk about it," he replied.
Meanwhile, England rugby coach Martin Johnson told the BBC that any of his players who stepped out of line, Twitter-wise, "might not be an England player for long". Asked if he would be joining the Twitterati any time soon, Johnson replied: "Don't hold your breath."
Martin Johnson: "We trust the players to do the right thing"
Of course, while any new technology comes with a health warning, with a hysterical media doing most of the warning, Twitter is largely a positive tool for sportspeople and sports clubs alike. For clubs, it is a great way of getting their brand out there. For sportspeople, it serves the same purpose, while fostering closer relationships with their fans.
"It's a great chance to apologise personally if I've played badly or thank the fans if we've played well and they've been in good voice," says Olly Barkley of Bath Rugby and England (Twitter followers: 5,621; sample tweet: "Trying a sausage cassoulet tonight. Don't be too alarmed if you see the contents on the touchline tomorrow").
"But I also try different things on Twitter. If I wrote about my everyday life, I'd bore myself. I've got quite a big music following now and I post tracks different DJs have sent me, so it's developed a bit for me. It's moved away from sport."
It is this human element that proves so fascinating for many followers - like a suspected Martian being asked to cut himself to prove he bleeds red, the revelation that Rio Ferdinand (Twitter followers: 415,108; sample tweet: "How can they let charlie slater leave the square with a beat up suitcase...at least hook him up with a new fake off the market!") watches EastEnders is all the proof some require that he is indeed one of us.
"It's good to see they're normal," says Sarah Ayub, a sports fanatic and follower of, among many others, Ferdinand and England cricketers Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, all of them masters of the medium. "Rio wakes up, takes his kids to school, but he also tells his fans if he's had a bad game and hasn't been able to sleep. He's just like everybody else."
The unfathomably famous Tiger Woods is assailed by autograph hunters. Photo: Getty
"Sportspeople are programmed to say certain things," adds Peter Searles, a follower of cricketers, swimmers and Southend footballers, "but on Twitter they've got free rein to say what they want. It's their own views rather than what someone's told them to say to a man with a microphone."
But if you think this makes Twitter a meritocracy, with the less famous such as Retford United goalkeeper Richard Jeffries (Twitter followers: 20; sample tweet: "Don't chat up girls at airports with GCSE French. 'Tu as un animal?' is not a good ice breaker") vying with the outlandishly famous such as Tiger Woods (Twitter followers: 418,473; sample tweet: "Fun to brainstorm with @nikegolf about creating new products, love their approach") by virtue of the quality of their tweets, then you would be wrong.
And while it is easy to view Twitter as the perfect medium for a celebrity-fixated, narcissistic age - each new follower a little boost to the ego, a reminder of just how famous, and therefore important, you are - for Barkley and Haskell, Twitter serves a deeper purpose, allowing them to paint more flattering self-portraits than the grotesque likenesses churned out by some sections of the media.
"People have their own ideas about me and they're often formed off the back of things they've read or what they hear," says Barkley, who was involved in a couple of well-publicised off-field altercations earlier in his career. "But if you post two or three times a day on Twitter and someone follows you for a couple of months, they'll get a pretty good idea of what you're really like."
Says Haskell: "I suffer from 'Marmite syndrome', people either love me or hate me, but Twitter's allowed me to show a lighter side. That's exactly why I do a lot of the stuff I do on Twitter - whether it's posting funny videos, banter with team-mates, charity stuff - to show fans what I'm really like."
However, there are those who argue this intimacy is largely illusory. "Twitter is a great way of apparently having contact with people and being matey," says Dr Lewis. "Not only are sportspeople keeping their followers at a distance but they're keeping them at a distance within 140 characters. It makes them feel good about themselves but it's low cost in terms of time, emotion and feedback."
In 2009, England all-rounder Tim Bresnan landed himself in hot water after rowing with a follower on Twitter, an episode that led some to question whether the medium was quite the love-in many of us had been led to believe.
Bresnan's angry putdown of a chap who had dared to join in a bit of repartee between the Yorkshireman and a couple of his team-mates demonstrated boundaries still existed and that correct Twitter etiquette had yet to be defined. The follower had no doubt thought to himself, "if Bresnan and Swanny are joshing in public, then why can't I stick my oar in?" Bresnan's take was clearly: "You wouldn't call me fat in the real world, so why should I let you get away with it online?"
"I do get frustrated sometimes because people aren't always the nicest on Twitter," says Haskell. "I recently tweeted saying Jonny Wilkinson was one of the best fly-halves in the world and ended up having an argument with someone I'd never met who thought I was criticising him. I stay away from any of that nonsense now."
The fans I spoke to were realistic, arguing that any contact is better than no contact at all, while it was also pointed out there are an awful lot of fans under a certain age who do not read newspapers or magazines or watch much TV, for whom Twitter is an invaluable source of information in these digital times.
Personally, I couldn't care less whether Rio Ferdinand is an EastEnders buff or not, as long as he's keeping clean sheets for England, just as I'm sure most Chelsea fans back in the 1950s were more interested in Roy Bentley's goals than the quality of his banter. But times have changed, and if Twitter did not exist then some bright spark would have to invent it - the modern fan wouldn't have it any other way.