Monday 7 January 2013

How social media has ratcheted up the pressure on modern football managers

From recruiting players on Twitter to suing fans for vicious comments made online, Alex Lawson looks at how social media has changed the interaction between managers and fans

Brian Laws distanced himself from a feud between fans
and the club
"Laws-y - give us a wave! Laws-y, Laws-y give us a wave!…Aaaay!" The former Sheffield Wednesday boss Brian Laws would raise a cheery hand to the onlooking fans. At one point this, and perhaps more negative shouts from the stands, was the only interaction had with the Owls faithful with the former Nottingham Forest fullback and longest serving manager since Trevor Francis. 
However, Laws came close to being drawn into a bitter battle with fans over vicious calls to sack him  in an online forum in 2009. Laws says in his laughably titled new book, Laws of the Jungle, that he had always respected supporters' right to an opinion and that he was "furious" at being drawn into an attempt by chairman Kaven Walker to sue fans expressing their opinion on an online forum. 

"They didn’t like it, but my reputation was at stake. You can’t have a manager suing his club’s fans. It just doesn’t work," says Laws. “That said, I do believe the internet and fans’ forums have got out of hand. It’s a licence to publish anything whether it’s right or wrong. And yes, often it is libellous. Opinions are put out by people who remain anonymous and it seems they can say anything they like.”

Laws' revelations are disappointingly unsurprising in a period when violent and emotive language is commonplace in expressing opinions on football as passion boils over. The internet has provided a wonderful forum for fans to interact and gee each other up - check any club's Twitter hashtag at 2.50pm on a Saturday - but also a tumultuous melting pot of over the top vile hatred from the idiotic few who have now been given a voice when things go wrong.

Former Aston Villa boss Alex McLeish said, after making the controversial switch from Birmingham to Aston Villa and receiving abuse from fans, that the problem will quickly escalate. “It has grown into a monster with social networks like Twitter," he said. "I respect people’s right to free speech but if any managers and coaches wanted to read that stuff it would send them barmy. The next thing that will emerge in football is somebody will get sued for something said [on Twitter]. Whether that’s a knee-jerk reaction because the jails will be full. People are already getting arrested," he said.

Moreover, social networks like Twitter and Facebook disproportionately represents the opinions of the few. For example, when there are calls for longstanding, settled managers like Arsene Wenger to be sacked it is often reported despite the fact the vast majority of Arsenal's fans have no desire for this to happen. 

However, the development of online interaction between managers and fans is not entirely negative. Managers can address the fans in their own voice - rather than through the spin of newspaper editors or the editing of TV broadcasts - and can put across their opinions far more clearly than the staid forum of a programme note. 

Former Yeovil manager Terry Skiverton took the debate to the next level last season when he used Twitter to aid him in his work. Short of cash to scout players, Skiverton appealed to his 1,700 followers to suggest players to bring to Huish Park and said the experience had been fruitful. He said at the time: "It's not a bit of fun for me - it's serious business. I can't afford a scouting system. "I think it gives the supporters a bit of fun as well as I've had supporters go through non-league annuals, going out and watching games saying 'what about this player?"

Of course, there are still the traditionalists, none more so than media-unfriendly Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson who last year issued his fans an old fashioned letter on the turnstile to appeal for respect to Liverpool fans mourning the Hillsborough disaster. 

Whether Skiverton's idea catches on and soon managers are also appealing for advice on which players to substitute via a hashtag remains to be seen. For now managers avoiding a slanging match with fans and supporters shying away from derogatory language about their beloved team's boss online must remain the goal. 

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