This appeared in a more timely fashion on SB Nation.
Stories about Twitter are dull and the increasing propensity of mainstream news outlets to cite Premiership stars’ Twitter feeds as if they are meticulously researched ‘sources’ is, on the one hand, another consequence of their precarious and increasingly ill-footed attempts to reposition themselves in a changing media landscape and, on the other, lazy.
This is not, though, a story about Twitter. The following anecdote, not even the most interesting Twitter-based football news of yesterday*, is also not, as it were, the thrust of this piece; it is, instead, an elucidatory parable exposing the inherent evil behind the way football clubs are run.
*That distinction goes to the ‘Troll-Wing’ of the Tottenham Hotspur fans association for their abuse of Olympic champion cyclist Chris Hoy who should never have been confused with silver-fox referee and alleged bungler Chris Foy, though you can see how it happened.
During last night’s Chelsea vs. Manchester City game, @MCFC – the latter’s verified Twitter account, which feeds a minute by minute account of the Manchester Club’s fixtures to those who deign to follow – tweeted: ‘90 Clattenburg over rules a linesman’s decision. Not often you see that Oh wait, its in Chelsea’s favour makes sense’. Now, quite possibly this has already set alarm bells ringing. It seems to have done so at @MCFC’s ‘Etihad Stadium’ base, as the tweet was deleted and then, at full-time, excused: ‘The tweet about Clattenburg was by no means intended to be bitter, just a bit of a joke. Hope I didn’t offend. #MCFC’. The last clause (as in the bit before the hashtag) is a classic acknowledgement of having caused offence and will have been written in response to criticism and not necessarily because of the actual offensiveness of the statement. Claiming, as some on my timeline did, this as the latest example of City’s notorious ‘disrespect’ for the game is silly. It also suggests, and the explanation for why is the aforementioned thrust, that, incredibly, those behind the scenes at City (and all other big clubs) have managed to trick people into thinking they actually do respect football. They don’t.
This is not to say that there is nothing offensive in the tweet or that you have no right to be offended. There is and you do: overrules is one word not two and clearly this statement needs the contraction ‘it’s’ rather than the possessive ‘its’.
Citing @MCFC’s tweet as evidence of Manchester City Football Club’s ‘lack of respect/class/good, honest English values’ is as ludicrous as presenting it as a proof of the club’s shocking ignorance of the conventions of grammar. Perhaps the individual responsible for last night’s tweeting does lack respect, and her or his grammatical practice certainly needs, well, practise (countless examples of its-gate remain on the feed). To diagnose either of these ills as endemic to the club is only another symptom of what my colleague Andi Thomas has called (in relation to a separate ‘affront’) ‘the ultra-precious nature of much of today’s football support’. It also shows, though, the extent to which this preciousness is encouraged by those behind football’s big clubs (maybe thrust was the wrong word to use all along; it’s really more of a slow burn). Like Mr Burns’ ‘hounds’, fans have been trained into a state of perpetual alert for the slightest hint of external threat while remaining woefully indulgent of the sins of their masters.
The Luis Suarez episode(s), on which Andi was commenting, illustrates perfectly the precariousness of the balancing act a football player is expected to perform between acting as an individual (perfectly entitled to give the bird to a group continually insulting his brother, mother or brother from another mother) and a representative of a collective (were Liverpool FC, as a club, to give opposing fans the finger – perhaps they could print the offensive digit on all away tickets, beside the price – it would, perhaps, be a different matter).
@MCFC’s twitter feed, conversely, illuminates the startling misdirection by means of which the individual realities of football club owners lining their pockets with fans’ hard earned cash are somehow elided into fictions of owners as wealthy fans.
Twitter is, through its brevity and its immediacy (two absolutely related and irreducible features of the site), a fundamentally spontaneous form of communication. It is also, for that reason, entirely individualistic. Turning, with due caution, to the grammar of @MCFC’s tweets illuminates the pertinence of this point. The semi-apology includes a conspicuous change from the collective pronoun ‘we’, preferred throughout the coverage, to the personal ‘I’. Inherent within the acknowledgement of offensiveness is a confession of individuality. Wizard of Oz-esque, the veil slipped and @MCFC became, for one tweet only, not Manchester City but, instead, a simple person with very human flaws (like the need to cover bitterness with unconvincing claims at humour). The irony being, of course, that @MCFC was always only ever a person.
This takes us, finally, to the crux of the matter. The linguist Roman Jakobson describes the word ‘I’ as a shifter: it has meaning only in particular spatial and temporal locations, and even then only in the moment of utterance. The word ‘we’ is, in relation to the fleeting and fragile ‘I’, an intransigent and timeless presence as in the phrase ‘we the people’. ‘We the City’, shares this timeless quality and it is this quality that the operators of big clubs are continually trying to hijack.
A counter-intuitive corollary to this, to return briefly to Suarez, is that owners want players to be kept different from us (like superheroes with whom we should deem ourselves fortunate to share air) so as to maintain ticket prices and TV subscriptions, hence the stink that’s made every time the Uruguayan (or his fellow miscreant Mario Ballotelli) acts like a human being. At the same time, though, they want you to think of them as one of you: ‘El Mubarak, Kroenke, Henry et al may be rich, but they’re fans, and therefore football’s stakeholders, just like us’.
This kind of doublethink is hard to maintain (and you don’t want to push it too far, a la Mike Ashley, or people will laugh at you). It can be done, though, and is done through the exploitation of the unavoidably nebulous nature of football clubs themselves. These are essentially composed of the shared history of distinct people, buildings and coincidences but are at the same time associations of intangible factors like regional identity, nostalgia and neuroses. Adding confusion to this already confused mix, allows clubs to appear as constituted in part by things they really shouldn’t or don’t need to include.
A Twitter feed is one such example, the unveiling of statues and renaming of stands are others, but all of these aremeans to the end of effacing the individuality of those in control of football: Manchester City is not one person, it is an institution; I am not the guy getting rich off your wages, I’m the guy who so movingly commemorated our legends. Hiding, as it were, in plain sight, the owners of clubs are individuals and they are making lots and lots of money (or PR, or fun for themselves, or whatever) by exploiting the collectives of which they pretend to be a part.
The way to fight this is to insist on separation, to insist (as did, in an extreme example, fans of FC United of Manchester) on the exclusion of that which is unnecessary to the club. This line will be different for different groups, and I am not saying that ‘all real fans’ need to form their own club, but a Twitter feed is a good place for everyone to start. @MCFC is always an ‘I’; it is not Manchester City Football Club. What’s next?