Hashtags give fans power when they ask Jesus about Lamps

Football clubs and their players are increasingly turning to social media to engage fans, but at what cost asks Neil Humphreys as Jesus Navas and Frank Lampard fall afoul to unfortunate twitter hashtags.

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In space, no one can hear you scream. In cyberspace, everyone can see you squirm. On billboard posters, footballers are transcendent immortals, far beyond the reach of the common man. On Twitter, they are wallies with hashtags.

Twitter succeeds where Marx failed. In just 140 characters, the proletariat prevails. Trolls storm the gated communities of sporting gods with a single click. Rioters wreak havoc with keyboards. Overworked thumbs are the new weapons of PR destruction. Whenever a footballer offers a hand to those who feed him, it’s not so much bitten as it is ripped apart by schools of sharks. The #AskNaivePlayer hashtag is dipped into the murky waters of social media and swiftly dragged to the bottom like Jaws taking down those three yellow barrels.

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Frank Lampard and Jesus Navas were the latest victims. In B-movie terms, they were those guys who head into the water for a swim as a distant cello strikes up while they shout something like: “I’m just off for a splash in this shark-infested ocean where I fully expect to return with no injuries whatsoever.” They were dead men wading.

Spanish winger Navas dipped a toe in first, conducting a Q & A chat via Manchester City’s official Twitter account. Fans were asked to send in questions using the hashtag #AskJesus. The trolls took it from there. The biblical references were delivered faster than a non-PC comedian from the seventies, offering all the subtlety of a Joey Barton tweet … If Jesus already brought Lazarus back from the dead, could he do the same for Fernando Torres?  … How does Jesus play football in sandals? … Who was God’s preferred winger – Jesus or Moses?… When he’s out wide, does Jesus have an aversion to crosses?

Over in the United States, meanwhile, Major League Soccer’s New York City were illuminating their Twitter feed with the hashtag #AskLamps. New signing Frank Lampard was photographed sitting behind a laptop and sportingly answering questions such as did he prefer himself when he was oil or electrical. Did he favour 65W incandescent or 15W energy saving? What was his problem with the “i” in Pixar? And had Lamps seen much of the genie?

For the most part, Lampard enjoyed the entertaining, mildly surreal interrogation. The benign questions encapsulated the “banter” that footballers desperately covet in the dressing room and instantly miss when they retire. (Retired players coming to grips with the loss of banter are akin to recovering drug addicts going cold turkey. Surely, Banter Anonymous groups are only a matter of time, where retired pros will stand up and say: “My name is Jimmy Bullard. My banter sobriety lasted six months until I lapsed last week and filled a friend’s football boots with dog shit.”)

Twitter: A risky business

Some of #AskLamps and #AskJesus comments inevitably veered towards the repugnant and that’s a calculated risk that organizers constantly grapple with. New York City and Manchester City knew what they were doing with the hashtags. Setting up a question and answer session with a 36-year-old midfielder not immediately recognizable to the outsized singlet and baseball cap brigade at Madison Square Garden lacks mainstream appeal. A mercurial, reserved winger who rarely embraced consistency last season might not offer much in the way of click-bait either. But a couple of joke tags and a few words with the Son of God soon took things viral.

But Twitter is a risky business. The days of discussions between footballers and fans inside smoky supporters clubs with wood-paneled walls filled with faded, nicotine-stained team posters are largely gone. Back then, dissent could largely be contained. Ridicule remained in the room. An ill-considered comment was not necessarily fatal.

Now it’s open season. Recent online chats with Arsene Wenger and Michael Carrick have also been taken over by the omnipresent trolls. Questions were abusive and, most damagingly, public. Carrick was asked if he agreed that Tom Cleverley was a terrible player. Wenger was challenged on Abou Diaby’s fitness and Arsenal’s mismanagement of injuries. Even a jet-lagged, exhausted David Gold was savaged by anonymous vultures this week after the West Ham owner accidentally favourited a fan’s tweet that questioned Sam Allardyce’s future as Hammers manager.

Before the explosion of social media, the supporters’ silence had been golden for the indomitable Premier League. As the World’s Greatest League ™ expanded, opportunities for real dissent diminished. On August 14, the Football Supporters’ Federation intends to march on the Premier League and Football League headquarters to protest against exorbitant ticket prices, but the event is likely to provide a colourful exercise in futility. Fans are seen, but rarely heard when it really matters.

Twitter is the glorious exception. For all its faults, social media has – to a degree – ripped back the curtain, cut the red velvet rope, torn down the “VIP only” sign and pummeled the no-necked bouncer, stubbornly reestablishing a fleeting relationship between the footballer and the fan. Of course, the balance of power resides with the man behind the iron EPL mask. Celebrities still only tweet when they want to tweet, usually when there is product to sell.

But they cannot entirely ignore the online masses either. The numbers are too vast. They must offer crumbs of their famous lifestyle occasionally. If they’re not quite willing to break bread with the man on the street, they can at least let him feast on their tweets. Like a gloved royal hand brushing palms with a flag-waving commoner, they are forced to feign interest and interact with those beyond their inner circle.

In the past, they crossed paths only at excruciating meet and greet events. Now they gather to make stilted conversation in cyberspace. Hashtags mark the rendezvous point. For a few agonizing minutes, the celebrity façade is peeled away to reveal a temporarily vulnerable individual; just another guy in front of a keyboard. They become sounding boards for long repressed frustrations over a club’s direction and an easy target for daft Jesus jokes. They are literally held in the palm of their supporters’ hands.

It’s a bit of a laugh for fans and a laborious exercise for footballers, but they have no choice. The brief encounters are increasingly unavoidable; bums on seats and shirts on backs and all that. To paraphrase Dolly Parton, if you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with raging trolls calling you crap on Twitter.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.