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Will Tidey - Twitter is the closest we get to modern footballers

Published: 04 Aug 2011 - 08:00:13

One of the first working sports journalists I met was a seasoned football man who'd covered the London clubs in the early 1960s. "It was a lot simplier back then," he told me. "You'd wait for the games to finish, head to the pub where the players drank afterwards, and soon enough find yourself sharing a pint with Jimmy Greaves, talking about the game."

For the modern-day football reporter it's a tale that leaves us longing for more innocent times. The idea of sidling up, buying a Premier League footballer a frothy pint and discussing the finer points of his performance half an hour after his side had entertained a crowd of 50,000 is a laughable one.

To get an audience with a big-name star these days, and Greaves was as big as they came back then, takes a considerable dedication to the cause and an acceptance that virtually nothing will be on your terms. You're certainly not going to find one in a pub a short walk from their home stadium. The most likely venue is the club's training ground, with a militant press officer in earshot, and a list of rules to follow.

Even to arrange that takes patience. You'll need to submit a request in advance and be prepared to wait, sometimes weeks, for an appointment. A large amount of footballer interviews these days are arranged by PR companies. They're paying the player to promote their cause and part of that commitment involves sitting down with journalists and getting some publicity. Just scroll down to the bottom of an interview piece and you'll see the company's name in italics.

'John Terry was speaking at the launch of....', 'Wayne Rooney is an ambassador for...', 'Eric Cantona is the new director of football at...' You know the deal.

Of course the problem with corporate tie-ins is by their very nature they're at odds with a reader's demand for frank honesty. If a company is paying Ryan Giggs a million quid to promote their lifestyle product, they certainly don't want him talking about his controversial private life. And if does, they won't let you print it. Or they will, but you risk never speaking to him again.

All of which has made truly insightful footballer interview pieces harder and harder to come by. We're in an age now where footballers are so closeted, so fiercely protected, so well versed in the art of saying something and nothing at the same time, that they may as well keep their mouths shut.

Or at least that's what we thought until Twitter arrived in the game. It's taken a social media revolution, but in 140 characters or less the game's most vocal stars have got their voice back.

Take Joey Barton, or Joey7Barton as he goes by on Twitter. The soon-to-be ex-Newcastle United midfielder has used his Twitter account as his primary means of communication in the wake of a fall-out with his club. No press conference, no one-to-one interview, just a whole load of Tweets summing up exactly how he feels and keeping a nation of football fanatics refreshing his page on a minute-by-minute basis.

Barton's not the first footballer to utilize Twitter power. Darren Bent famously attacked Tottenham owner Daniel Levy through his account, while Ryan Babel used the medium to bemoan being left out of Liverpool's starting line-up. Andrey Arshavin chose Twitter to voice his frustrations at a referee.

Barton appears to be setting a new standard, however. The whole football news agenda is being led by what Barton posts on Twitter, and reporters up and down the country are foregoing interview quotes for his latest update. The 28-year-old is using Twitter as Greaves and Co. did the pubs around their home stadiums 50 years ago, and the result is a rare insight into the mind of a modern footballer. 

Naturally Newcastle are unhappy about it, and punishments dealt out to previous footballing revolutionaries would suggest they may well come a time when freedom of speech on Twitter is policed as tightly as it is in PR-sponsored interviews. But for now, football fans and journalists have at least a small sense of how things used to be. And personally, I'm all for it.

Follow my Twitter @willtidey

PA


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FOOTBALL.CO.UK BLOGGER:Will Tidey
Will Tidey writes on sport for CNN, Eurosport-Yahoo! and Bleacher Report, amongst others. His first book, 'Life with Sir Alex', an account of Sir Alex Ferguson's 25-year reign at Manchester United, is set for release in October this year. Pre-order it now at http://tinyurl.com/6xzl62b. And follow Will on Twitter here - www.twitter.com/willtidey

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