Ever wanted to be a football pundit? Glen Wilson explains how easy it was to be mistaken for a virtual Andy Townsend
As Andy Gray took his final "boo" last month and emptied his desk of his telestrators and On The Buses DVDs, another much less prominent Andy also saw his media presence terminated. As Gray was exiting Sky Sports, Twitter was suspending the account of @AndyDTownsend, the satirical feed which had inadvertently found itself involved in the sexism scandals, having been mistaken by the Independent journalist Andy Herbert for the actual Andy Townsend.
Writing the day after Do-Me-A-Favour-Love-Gate Herbert drew attention to "the patronising internet chatter masquerading as a spirit of equality" before quoting a tweet from the ITV pundit. However, Townsend is not a tweeter and instead Herbert had mistakenly referenced the words of @AndyDTownsend – a spoof. The following day his paper printed an apology and in its final throes the parody account surged to 4,800 followers before the plug was pulled.
This journalistic slap of the forehead generated two questions – how could Herbert be so easily taken in by a spoof account and what sort of person would pretend to be Andy Townsend? Well, as the writer of the spoof AndyDTownsend Twitter, the second of those questions is easier for me to address. And yes, for the amateur social profilers among you, I do live alone and when it began I really did have nothing better to do.
I don't like the term "fake Andy Townsend" as it implies I was trying to be him, which was never the intention. In fact I made a conscious effort not to be crude or offensive and not to reply to or acknowledge tweets received. AndyDTownsend started a year ago as a parody to kill a quiet month and amuse friends who like me were fed up of lazy, insight-free football punditry. It could have been any pundit – Shearer, Lawrenson, even Gray – although condensing the rambling and ultimately rhetorical points of Garth Crooks into fewer than 140 characters would have perhaps been a challenge too far. As it was, Townsend just happened to be on screen at the time.
When Townsend was on television I tweeted during the ad breaks – "Steve Rider always tries to put us off when we return from the ads by singing along to that Champions League song in a high pitched voice" – and when he was off air then I addressed real life in the language of football punditry: "Just received a caution for using an off-peak ticket on a peak time train. The problem with these train guards is they never played the game". It was one simple joke infinitely dragged out.
The Independent piece was not the first time AndyDTownsend had made the national press. In December the Guardian proclaimed "Andy Townsend's Twitter impersonator almost contributed to putting Welling United out of business", which was arguably an unfair exaggeration of my non-response to fans' appeals for a donation to help save Welling. "From reading the posts it is difficult to see how the fans did not immediately notice the satire," the Guardian summarised.
Yet, no matter how outlandish the tweets and despite the fact that the only person I followed was artist Tracey Emin, the satire continued to pass many by. In December, off work and snowed in, I took AndyDTownsend to a pantomime and tweeted punditry on the story of Cinderella. Even then, in a stream including tweets such as "Whether she's behind you or not the real questions are is she interfering and is she active?", followers were still seeking AndyDTownsend's thoughts on the latest transfer rumours. "Do you think Luis Suárez would be a good signing for Tottenham? I used to talk to you on Talksport!"
The problem was that in Andy Townsend, a man who once remarked on radio "Snakes on a Plane? What's that about?", I had unwittingly chosen a subject almost beyond parody. No matter how ridiculous the tweets, they were never perceived to be quite ridiculous enough to be something that he himself would not say. The addition of any one of three prefixes – "I tell you what", "For me" or "For my money" – can, it transpires, enable any sentence, no matter how banal or ridiculous, to become authentically Townsend enough for the people.
On Twitter, journalist Dan Brennan (assuming it was he) suggested that this was the "ultimate compliment a spoof Twitter feed can hope for". I would argue it to be more the ultimate denunciation of the established order of football pundits. Having spewed the same rhetoric year on year they have become so rooted in their own mannerisms that, even as vastly exaggerated caricatures, they remain wholly believable not only to a great swathe of football fans, but to those paid to write about the game. For my money, it's just not good enough.
From WSC 289 March 2011