Anyone who has ever tweeted the words “socialism,” “Marxism”or “communist” will know what happens next. Within minutes your tweet is seized upon by Robot J McCarthy (@RedScareBot) who hunts down and exposes Twitter’s left wing sympathisers wherever they may be. It is bizarre, random and occasionally funny but its genius lies in its ability to react to certain buzzwords almost instantaneously with a pithy response such as “On Your Marx,” “Exit Stage Left,”or “Commie Chameleon.”
Less well known, though, is the Premier League’s very own Twitter bot. Tweet something about the price of match tickets and there is a strong possibility that within minutes you will receive a tweeted reply. It happened to me for the umpteenth time on Sunday when I tweeted a link to Gary Neville’s latest column in the Mail on Sunday in which the England coach highlighted the possible link between youngsters being priced out of the game and a lack of atmosphere at Premier League grounds.
The reply from a Premier League official was swift and measured. At first, I was a bit bewildered that someone would be on duty at that time on a Sunday morning and would care sufficiently about protecting the Premier League brand that they would bother themselves with an answer.
Having given it more thought since then, though, I’ve come to look upon it differently. Perhaps it is a positive that those in positions of authority in English football are willing to engage, particularly when their motives are being scrutinised, and it certainly suggests a move towards a much needed mature approach to criticism.
Considering the way many of those in the Premier League hierarchy and at their member clubs regard football as a customer driven pursuit rather than a source of pride for supporters and communities, there have been precious few signs of them accepting that the move into towards consumerism has given them new responsibilities.
If a fan pays £50 for a ticket and sub-standard fare is served up, for example, there is no scope for a refund. If the team you pay to watch performs badly, the manager may feel at liberty to criticise you for not creating the kind of atmosphere conducive to good play.
If players talk about “doing it for the fans”, you can bet your life that not too many of them, if any, would be willing to take a pay cut to allow going to the match to become affordable.
In football’s global economy you are a customer when it suits and a supporter when it doesn’t.
It is this attitude – one that seems to be increasingly prevalent – which makes clubs so sensitive to criticism from fans. The overriding mindset is that you are entitled to pay your money, travel the length and breadth of the country supporting your team and show unstinting devotion through good times and bad but your opinions are likely to be dismissed if they are deemed to be in any way negative.
In some extreme cases, criticism has led to people being condemned as “enemies of the club” and treated as such for nothing more than asking valid questions about the way the club that they support is being run.
An unhealthy extension of this paranoia is that there have been occasions when newspapers and journalists find themselves under pressure from clubs not to give any exposure to those who are perceived agitators.
What happened at Newcastle United recently – with three local newspapers being banned by the club for nothing more than carrying a legitimate report about a protest march against Mike Ashley – was disturbing and it deserved all of the attention and criticism it got, but it is the tip of the iceberg.
My own personal (past) experience of how clubs handle dissent does not show them in a particularly good light.
A couple of years ago I was banned from getting post-match player quotes because that morning The Times had carried a piece criticising the club’s owners in a measured and reasonable manner.
Whether I agreed or disagreed with its contents is irrelevant. We live in a democracy and it is one in which freedom of speech is supposed to be cherished. Are clubs really that sensitive to criticism and so important that they can place themselves outside such noble boundaries?
In another instance (again, in the past) I found myself on the kind of blacklist that @RedScareBot would approve of with one of the reasons being that I had, during the course of a private conversation, suggested that Sheikh Mansour type figures would not be my favoured kind of club owners.
Such radicalism could not be tolerated and I found myself on a list of outcasts with a whole host of “agitators,” many of whom were totally unconnected and pretty apolitical but still found themselves compared to the Khmer Rouge.
Putting aside my own views on club ownership – although for the record, my realistic preference is for self-sufficiency and my idealistic predilection is for the German model with supporters involved – none of this was in any way threatening to the club in question.
No grand insurrection was being planned and there were no clandestine meetings to create a militia or destabilise the club. This was nothing more than individuals holding their own, legitimate views on the way that a club was being run and finding themselves castigated as a result.
That’s why what is happening at Newcastle at present is no surprise. If anything, it is merely a continuation of the inability of many Premier League clubs to deal with criticism and dissent in a mature and responsible manner. Their own ideal is for supporters to fill stadiums regardless of ticket costs and for them never to kick up any kind of fuss that might have a negative effect on their brand.
But in the consumerist culture they have created – one in which customers pay high prices without recourse to Trading Standards if the goods provided are sub-standard – the least they can do is listen to complaints and treat them with respect, particularly when they come from the very people about whom it is continually said make football what it is.
Clubs do not have to agree with the criticism, they can argue that it is unfair and attempt to show why, but it would be in the best interests of themselves and the game in general if they at least engaged rather than turning on a perceived enemy within.
At the risk of alerting @RedScareBot, they’re not all reds under the beds, they just sometimes see things differently because they want what’s best for their club.
The above piece was first featured in The Times and has been reproduced with permission.