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Footballers and twitter

When former Oxford United striker Lee Steele took to Twitter to give his views on former Wales rugby international and current Celebrity Big Brother contestant Gareth Thomas he had unintentionally sparked the debate which divides player and manager alike.

If you are to believe the rumour mill Steele wrote a strongly worded message about Thomas with homophobic connotations.  His club’s response has been swift and just as strong as Steele’s vocabulary.

The fact that Steele now finds himself on the free agent list like so many others at this time in the football season says more about the difficult relationship that sportsmen have with Twitter rather than one man’s actions.

Was it an error of judgement, or a slip of the tongue, or finger on the keyboard?  Was it something altogether more sinister?

Until, and indeed if, Steele speaks out we can speculate. Many will, undoubtedly in greater detail than the 140 characters per message Twitter allows.

What must be guarded against is a full scale condemnation of sport stars using social media. Those who witnessed football in the days of Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh and Charlie George will eulogise about how you could chat to the number nine down the local shop on a Friday and then see him leave another defence in his wake on a Saturday.

Before Twitter became the beast it is today interaction between players and fans was at an all-time low.

The breadth of the divide was alarming. Twitter has helped remedy this.

The most famous breaking of the divide is Joey Barton.  The midfield enforcer known for his fondness of enforcing matters off the pitch is a well-read character, philosophising with quotes from George Orwell.

He has used Twitter to show a hidden side of his personality. While he may still carry the consequences of his past actions, the general consensus is that some have mellowed towards him.

Others in the list of prolific tweeters include Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, Jermaine Defoe and Jack Wilshere.

Yours truly can now send heavyweights of the sport a direct message. No messing with excruciatingly annoying PR folk. The private secretary’s desk is also now short of work.

However, if anyone can send a direct message, saying what they like I hasten to add, the sportsman can also reply with what they deem fit. Inevitably, mistakes will be made and those private thoughts which should have stayed private find themselves at the mercy of fans and journalists.

Even the well-educated amongst us suffer the embarrassing aftermath of a comment which was better left unsaid. It can be argued that Twitter only increases the opportunity for mishap.

Nevertheless, this is the technological age. Tweeting is the consequence of the changing social culture where Facebook is an interactive pick and choose friend outlet, and Twitter is the equivalent to a drink down the local with 140,000 followers.

The freedom of speech of players has long been controlled by clubs and chairmen, denying journalists interviews, and restricting press coverage. Some will be concerned with how to restrict the flow of Twitter.

Sacked QPR manager Neil Warnock said in November of last year that Anton Ferdinand was a “twit” for tweeting after the visit of Chelsea to Loftus Road and the John Terry racism row which followed.

Only yesterday Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny felt compelled to apologise after labelling his teammate Aaron Ramsey a “rapist” on Twitter. To those who follow the game it was obvious that Szczesny meant no direct harm. However, it did leave a bad taste in the mouth.

The nature of Twitter (fast-paced short messages) means that a pinch of salt should be taken with most of the content. 140 characters is neither enough to fully explain or deny an accusation or piece of wrong doing.

Lee Steele will be hoping that prospective employers see his skill on the pitch rather than his failings in the world of social media.

Gary Peters

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