Too close for comfort

In the old days you had to wait for the Shoot! questionnaire to find out the likes and dislikes of your favourite players. Now, as Glen Wilson is alarmed to discover, such information is just a click away

Somewhere in my childhood, on a caravan park near Penarth, I kicked a ball about with a kid who told me his uncle was Clayton Blackmore. “Don’t ask my Nan about it,” he said pointing to the beige static home behind him, “she’ll tell you I’m lying.” Obviously I was impressed. As a child, perhaps due to one too many Hot Shot Hamish comic strips, I was convinced that footballers were some sort of super breed; bigger, stronger, more athletic than I could ever be. The fact that someone my age could know or be related to one of these people, even ­Clayton Blackmore, stunned me.

Now, as with then, there exists for me a clear boundary between footballers and fans. They play while I pay money to watch and offer unfounded advice on how they should do it. That’s how it works. I have no desire to “know” these players. To befriend the team I support, Doncaster Rovers, would open me up to strange feelings of sympathy or guilt as I berate the latest horrifically executed set piece. I don’t want personal sentiment clouding my matchday experience. If fans and players were meant to mingle then God wouldn’t have invented pitch-side advertising hoarding, or stewards.

Fourteen years on from that caravan park, wasting a Friday afternoon at work, I was presented with the opportunity to link my player and fan binaries and came ashamedly close to taking it. Locating much of our squad on MySpace, I was suddenly ten again, lifted from reason by the opportunity to get close to footballers. All it needed was one click on “add to friends” and I could be accepted into the social sphere of our midfield. A press of a button and I could become the South Yorkshire equivalent of Jimmy Five Bellies, sitting in the roped-off bit of some grotty local nightclub, laughing ­hysterically at witless banter.

But then I began to wonder what I would do if my friend request were accepted. Despite pretensions to be one of my team’s more erudite supporters, I realised I would inevitably become just another grinning face asking our central midfielder when he’s going to get a game, or how our injured winger’s ankle is. Basically the cyberspace equivalent of chasing Roy Walker down the street only to yell: “Say what you see! Hey Roy… Say what you see!” before a pained and awkward silence. And so I showed restraint where many hadn’t. “Thanks for the add, good luck for the new season” is pretty much all the average Doncaster fan has to say to their hero; except for one that made the extra step toward stalker with the comment: “Do you have MSN and if you do can I have it?”

Perhaps this potential for unwanted attention explains why so few footballers, despite their vast amount of free-time, are part of the cyber networking revolution. A number of players have their pages set to “private”, meaning only their profile photo and a “headline” are visible to those not among their friends. The much travelled Richard Offiong, now of Hamilton, is one such player, although his headline of “Don’t stalk my page. You know who you are” may point to why.

As for those that do allow the public a glimpse of their personal life they are, perhaps wary of Stephen Ireland’s fate, lacking in depth. Jason Price is a Spider-man fan, although of slightly more concern is his self introduction: “officially an alcoholic”, “stressed and bored”. Otherwise it’s the blast of hip-hop and gaggle of ladettes that you would expect: Price appears to be establishing his own personal harem of scantily clad blondes; his friends list resembles the queue for the launch of a new line at Topshop.

Paul Green, like many a 24-year-old Doncaster lad, loves his body-kit-clad fast cars and claims to be “Donny til I die”. However, the difference between Paul and other lads his age is that he is our longest-serving player. At the other end of the playing scale privacy prevents such revelations, although Chelsea starlet Harry Worley’s headline – “form is temporary, class is permanent” – implies his loan spell at the Keepmoat Stadium was far from permanent in every sense.

Footballers, particularly League One footballers, are far from the untouchable athletes I imagined as a child. They like cars, women, hip-hop and banter and befriending them online offers a personal insight as much as a Pot Noodle encapsulates Cantonese cuisine. In effect, all we are likely to get from footballers joining social networking sites is some bloke in his front yard telling his neighbour that he’s good friends with Jason Price. “Don’t tell the missus I said that though,” he’ll say pointing to the terraced house behind him, “she’ll tell you I’ve just added him on Facebook.”

From WSC 249 November 2007