Ben takes a look at how footballers from his beloved Ipswich Town are using social media to interact with fans
There’s no doubt that football is changing. There’s more money involved in the professional game than ever before and whilst this is great news for the lucky few who make it to the top, the story is not so rosy for the humble fans who are increasingly squeezed out of more and more money just to follow their team. This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed in the football community, with the rise of organisations such as Stand Against Modern Football building a movement against the corporate culture that seems to have engulfed much of the game.
This infographic highlighting the rise in average ticket prices appeared in Stand Against Modern Football's magazine
Aside from money, technology – and particularly social media has also changed football. Whilst the average fan is now financially further away from football and footballers than ever before, we’ve never been closer in terms of our ability to engage with footballers. Anyone can read what a player gets up to in their spare time, send them a photo of their name on the back of your shirt or share in the ecstasy with them when they score a last minute winner.
I have been a fan of Ipswich Town FC (ITFC) for over 20 years. I could wax lyrical about all the factors that make ITFC such a special club and why I’m so proud to be a Tractor Boy. However, seeing as I do that at any opportunity I am afforded, I thought I’d take this chance to write about how twitter is changing the relationship between fans and footballers. I’m using ITFC as a basis for this blog not only because I know about the club and players, but also because they have provided some excellent examples of how to, and how not to use twitter as a way of engaging with fans.
To begin with, let’s start by adding some foreshadowing context to the issue. In 2011, during his reign as manager of Wolves, the current ITFC manager Mick McCarthy brought in a media law firm to advise his players of their conduct on social media sites. This move followed a Wolves player – Greg Halford tweeting about a potential signing, only for it to fall through in the ensuing days. McCarthy suggested that Halford’s tweet played a key role in the Black Country club missing out on signing the player. During an interview about the arrival of the media law firm at Wolves, McCarthy stated:
“Players are going to get themselves into trouble over Twitter, I can tell. I can’t ban it and I’m not going to try. But they have to be careful what they say on it about the club and its policies.”
Fast-forward 18 months to the present day and with McCarthy now presiding over the team at ITFC, his 2011 claims still remain pertinent following a series of high-profile incidents involving Ipswich players using the micro-blogging site. However, this time around perhaps McCarthy may be able to see that the impact of players using twitter can generate positive, as well as negative sentiments.
Let’s take a look at an example from both sides of the coin. With the desire to end this blog on a positive note, I’m going to start with a bad example. An example which will more than likely provide media law firms up and down the country with ample material on how footballers should not use twitter. Let’s look at the case of Michael Chopra.
Michael Chopra - welcoming tourists and commuters into Ipswich
Chopra has faced several off-field issues since arriving at ITFC, including a well-publicised gambling addiction, which culminated in the club loaning the striker £250,000 to pay his debts, as well as being found guilty of horse race fixing and banned from any involvement in the sport for 10 years. Not great PR for the town, the club or the player, whose image stands at the entrance to Ipswich railway station, with the words ‘This is Ipswich’ above his head.
Indeed, Chopra’s use of social media hasn’t done much to remedy his image as a poor role model. Following the above incidents, Chopra received numerous ‘trolling’ tweets, antagonising him for his off-field, financial problems. Instead of ignoring them and blocking the culprits (as many footballers who receive twitter abuse everyday do), Chopra decided to enter into a dialogue with the trolls, adding fuel to the fire that was his twitter account. Chopra’s final retaliatory tweet was directed at those who had been mocking his financial woes by tweeting a photo of a bag full of £20 notes, stating: ‘Keep tweeting me about me being in debt haha love it’
The tweet that caused controversy and led Chopra to quit twitter
Whilst I can fully appreciate the difficulty in ignoring venomous messages (some of which mentioned his family), Chopra undoubtedly over-stepped the mark by gloating about how much money he has lying around in plastic carrier bags. Not only did this anger Ipswich fans, whose club had loaned him money to help with his debts – reportedly to stave off loan-sharks who had turned up at the training ground; it also angered football fans in general who saw Chopra’s tweet as a sickening reminder of the divide between players and fans. It even drew attention from fellow players, with ITFC teammate Jay Emmanuel-Thomas responding to the photo with the tweet: ‘Michael Chopra your [sic] a clown!’
The subsequent days saw Chopra delete his twitter account (he has since reactivated it). However, spurred by his online behaviour, football fans around the country continued to talk about how footballers were using social media and the growing disconnect between the pedestalled players and the fans that ultimately pay their wages. Unsurprisingly, the next time Chopra played for ITFC, he was booed by a significant section of the crowd – including both home and away fans.
It is fair to say that Chopra’s ill-judged social media activity has significantly contributed to the unrest amongst Ipswich fans as they struggle to afford to follow their team. Interestingly, the BBC ran a survey last year which found that ITFC offered the most expensive match day tickets in the Championship. Against such a backdrop and in hindsight, I hope Chopra realises the errors of his ways and now that he’s back on twitter, can learn some lessons from other members of the squad about how to use the platform to engage with fans.
One such member of the squad Chopra could learn a thing or two from is Tyrone Mings. The 20 year old, who joined Ipswich from non-league Chippenham Town earlier this season hasn’t even played a game for the blues yet. However, last week, the defender found himself making the headlines for all the right reasons due to his engagement with a fan on twitter.
A few hours before ITFC’s home game against Bolton Wanderers on 16th March (a game that Mings was named as a substitute) a fan tweeted to wish him and the team good luck. As a throwaway comment in the tweet, the fan also wrote that he wished he could be there to see his beloved team, highlighted with the hashtag #skint. Within an hour, Mings had replied to the fan, asking whether he could get to the ground in time for kick off. The fan confirmed he could, and this was followed by another message from Mings informing the fan that he had left two tickets at the ticket office for him, along with the comment ‘Shouldn’t miss a game cos you can’t afford it’.
Tyrone Mings offers a 'skint' fan complimentary tickets to an ITFC match
Being a twitter addict and one who follows the majority of ITFC players (even Michael Chopra!) I saw this exchange as it happened, just as I was about to go underground on the tube. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it other than it was a kind gesture to a cash-strapped fan. I’m aware that players get a certain allocation of match tickets for family and friends and it is almost certain that this gesture didn’t cost Mings a penny. However, whilst I made my way through the tunnels of the Central Line, I began to think more deeply about it – the power of the gesture wasn’t encased in the value of the tickets. Rather, it was the pleasantly surprising sense of parity and camaraderie that is so rarely seen between players and fans. Sure, players are generally more than happy to sign autographs for fans or pose for photos, but this was different. It was spontaneous, unrequested and refreshing.
When I surfaced out of the Underground and walked up the staircase at Liverpool Street station, I had another look at the tweet and saw that it had already been re-tweeted nearly a hundred times in the space of an hour. Not bad for Mings’ twitter credibility, who, prior to that exchange only had approximately 1,200 followers. At last count, ten days after the exchange between player and fan, Mings’ ‘left u 2 tickets under the name of Tris Monk. Shouldn’t miss a game cos u can’t afford it #ITFC’ message had been directly re-tweeted 5,239 times. This isn’t even taking into account the tens of thousands of re-tweets gained through other sources. In addition, Mings’ twitter followers grew from approx. 1,200 to 13,000 and now include famous footballers such as Ian Wright (@IanWright0) and Sky’s @SoccerAM account. Furthermore, as is the beauty of twitter, the tweet truly went viral, with global news agencies such as BBC News and The Huffington Post, amongst many others, picking up on the story and posting articles on it.
Newcastle United fans praise Mings on their fan site - toonforum.co.uk
Mings’ tweet has certainly put some faith back into football fans’ hearts about the relationship between fans and players – with comments praising Mings emerging on fan forums up and down the country. However, the ‘newsworthiness’ or ‘talk-ability’ factor of the story sadly comes from its abnormality. Hopefully, Tyrone Mings’ gesture will have set a precedent and it won’t be the last time that a player performs such a random act of kindness towards a fan.
One of the things I love about twitter is that it engenders a sense of parity and enables everyone to occupy a level playing field. It’s a public space where all sections of society have the ability to interact with one another in any way they choose. Where else would you get the opportunity to engage in conversation with society’s elite (however you may define that group!) from the comfort of your living room? Of course, there will always be those who abuse the technology and use it to antagonise. However, the majority of users draw upon it as a tool to share information and have conversations about mutually shared interests.
Regardless of how it is used, twitter certainly holds the power to bring players and fans together in a way not seen before. I only hope that as social media continues to be ingrained in our lives that it is treated with caution and a sense of consequence – particularly by those in privileged positions, such as football players. Who knows, in years to come, maybe media law firms will no longer need to ‘train’ people on how to use social media, or if they are, that they’ll be using Tyrone Mings as an exemplary benchmark for how footballers should engage with fans online.