“Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing.” Those are the famous words of the late great Celtic manager, Jock Stein.
Of course, unbeknown to him, his once wonderfully put phrase is now the origin of the most overused cliché in the sport. But the principle meaning still applies because, let’s be honest, football really is nothing without fans.
The difference is now that fans don’t have to be at the ground to show their support or share their opinion. Social media’s continued rise means they can do so virtually and at times preferable to their own respective schedules.
Hence, the birth of ‘Football Twitter’ (FT): the world where fans – usually anonymously – debate football with a vast network of other people.
Sometimes accounts purely express opinion, whilst others prefer to engage in light-hearted banter with rival fans. Most tend to blend a bit of both. Whatever the motive, the outcome is fairly entertaining.
So, what’s the issue?
Well, because of the added anonymity, where fans hide behind pictures of their favourite players and sometimes don’t provide their real names, accounts are typically criticised for being spineless and unforthcoming.
Most accounts are well behaved but there’s a minority who take ‘banter’ a step too far, often to the point where it stigmatises the entire concept of FT.
An example of that cowardice happened earlier this month, when a Chelsea fan account tweeted about the death of Rhys Jones following his team’s loss to Everton.
Jones was tragically murdered in a crossfire on his way home from football practice in 2007. The tweet was so unthinkably outrageous that Rhys’ father, Stephen Jones, took to Facebook to express how saddened he was by it.
Many immediately reported the tweet and the account was later banned because of its sad, inhumane humour.
Even though terrible cases like this do happen on occasion, some might perceive the ‘cowardice’ generalisation as unfair, possibly even presumptuous, particularly given that it doesn’t consider why fans have these accounts in the first place.
Perhaps then, FT is simply a world misunderstood.
Getting Into FT
Speaking to the Sports Gazette this week, Max (@AFCMax9), who has one of the biggest Arsenal fan accounts, said: “I think most people, including myself, just want to share our opinions with other likeminded fans. That’s certainly why I started.
“Originally I joined to access other account’s content and never really put out any of my own, but as I started to get into the app a bit more, I decided I might as well get my opinions across.”
Max now has more than 40,000 followers to share those thoughts with. Like the majority of FT, he just wants to connect with people who enjoy talking about football – Twitter gives him a platform to do just that.
“People like to join FT because it is an easy way to get followers and likes if you know the right things to tweet,” said Seb (@NotYourWinger).
Yes, some people do get caught up in the retweets – maybe even in what some might perceive as a false sense of reality – but the frequent interaction suggests that their opinion matters to people, which in turn makes them feel part of a community. That feeling of belonging is understandably appealing.
Still, the mind does ponder, why can’t people feel part of a community without hiding part – or all – of their identity?
According to huge Manchester United fan, Aidan Walsh (@AidanWalshMUFC), FT provides an opportunity to escape the pressures of the outside world: “I believe people have these accounts to get away from their everyday life,” he said.
Accounts know that FT is largely a safe space. They will only be judged by their opinion, not their appearance, which provides a sense of security and self-confidence.
James (@afcjxmes), who incidentally is comfortable displaying his own picture but momentarily chooses not to, said: “You can be whoever you want behind the screen and people judge you on your opinion alone rather than what you look like.”
Most of us desire a level of comfortability on social media. As long as an account is not crossing the line, what’s the problem? In the real world, it’s typically not considered acceptable to criticise someone for doing whatever it is that makes them feel comfortable. Shouldn’t the same rules apply online?
The Impact of ‘Trolls’ on FT’s Reputation
Sadly though, some do cross that line.
This minority, referred to as ‘trolls’, spurt hate to spark a reaction from rival fans, so much so, that it shatters FT’s reputation.
The ever so gutless and pathetic ‘banter’ around the Jones family is one of the more severe cases of trolling. Regrettably however, similar levels of abuse occur regularly.
For example, trolls often direct their hate towards players – strangely, even to the ones they claim to support. Aston Villa star Tyrone Mings recently addressed this specific issue.
Mings’ teammate, Anwar El Ghazi, was forced to stop using Twitter in October after he received so much abuse from Villa fans following the team’s defeat to Stoke City in the Carabao Cup.
So, when El Ghazi scored the late winner against a confident Wolves side in early December, Mings demanded fans apologise to him for their actions: “A team game utilises a WHOLE squad and we need everyone… may your apology be as loud as the disrespect,” he said.
Players don’t like to create a divide between squad and fanbase, but Mings was right to publicly show El Ghazi his support.
Walsh (@AidanWalshMUFC) believes those who abuse players are wrong on so many levels: “people often forget that footballers are people and have the same emotions as us fans,” he said.
A string of – or even just one – inconceivable tweets can strongly affect the victims of online abuse. Unfortunately, trolls don’t care much about that, nor do they care that their actions damage FT’s reputation.
Positivity Over Hate: Stopping The Minority
Members of FT will have to live with that reputation for the time being, but that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to always be the case.
That’s not to say we’ll ever be completely rid of trolls. In fact, we probably never will be. However, if efforts are made to restrict their numbers, then the positivity on FT that is so often ignored will start to filter through.
“Hate will always be highlighted and seen on a wider stage because of how outrageous it is, but often the love and support is missed,” said Max.
Not too long ago, the hashtag ‘FTagainstbullying’ trended after an account was bullied by trolls following their decision to reveal their face to the public. The matter inspired others to subsequently reveal their faces too, in order to raise awareness of bullying on social media.
The response was overwhelmingly positive and definitely emphasised that community feel so many accounts describe.
Do people outside of FT even know that happened?
According to Seb (@NotYourWinger), support like that happens regularly but people turn a blind eye to it: “In general, especially on days where there are no games played, you’ll see a lot of people spreading positive vibes,” he said.
If Twitter can clamp down on the perpetrators, possibly with the help of those who want to protect FT’s standing, then there is no reason why FT’s reputation won’t eventually improve.
However, until then, it sadly looks as though it will still be a world misunderstood.
If you or someone you know is struggling, UK mental health charity Mind maintain a list of helplines and services.
And if you’re reading this from outside the UK, you can find a service near you at CheckPoint.Org.