Social Media and Scapegoats

This week saw Albion striker Aaron Connolly deactivate his Twitter account due to the amount of abuse he had received from other users after missing a clear cut chance to score a second goal for Albion in Sunday night’s win over Tottenham.

Whilst examples of this are becoming all too common, social media has become a useful tool for football club’s and their players to engage with supporters in an increasingly detached industry. Particularly at Premier League level where the lifestyles of its players have become increasingly diverged from that of its supporters as a result of the increasingly eye-watering salaries that players are now paid.

But Social Media platforms, like the rise of Internet forums prior to their mass adoption, have also given football supporters a much larger audience to voice the vociferous criticism of their team.

It’s often the players who are on the receiving end of this fury, and has led to many example of them being scapegoated by fans expressing their fury in the heat of the moment, which can sometimes lead to the kind of deplorable abuse that Aaron Connolly recently received.

Of course this isn’t a truly modern phenomena, Scapegoats have always existed. Going back into the English football archives prior to the Internet gives you plenty of examples of fans targeting individual players on the terraces, or in fanzines and even by journalists in professional sports media.

A notable example is the late Ray Wilkins, who had a prestigious career for both club and country. Albion fans will remember him as a part of the 1983 Man United FA Cup winning team, as well as for making 84 appearances for England, which included playing at two world cups as well as making ten of those 84 appearances as captain. Yet his career was played with criticism as he was unfairly typecast as “Ray the Crab” for his perceived tendency to play too many sideways passes.

Scapegoats like Ray are often picked out for criticism not necessarily because they are doing their job particularly badly, but because it defines something about the style of the team that the fans don’t like.

Dale Stephens, a midfielder who plays a similar role, received similar criticism to Ray Wilkins during his time at Brighton and certainly fell into that category. He often played as Albion’s one or one of two holding midfielders in a very defensive team that lacked much forward invention. As such he was often unfairly picked out for not playing the right pass or giving away the ball, despite having one of the best, if not the best, passing accuracy records during his time at the club.

Glenn Murray defended Stephens during their time playing together for the Albion saying: “I think Dale Stephens is a footballer’s footballer. He does a job that goes very unnoticed, especially to the untrained eye.”

Stephens’ fellow Burnley teammate and another former Albion player Ashley Barnes was also picked out for regular criticism during his time at Albion too. In fact, fans of another of his former club’s Torquay thought he wasn’t even good enough for league 2 during his time there, yet he has since gone on to recently score his 100th goal in senior football in Burnley’s win over reigning Premier League Champions Liverpool, a goal which was also his 40th goal in the Premier League.

Unlike Stephens, Barnes at times made a rod for his own back through his lack of discipline, but despite that and his occasional wastefulness in front of goal, he was valued by then Albion manager Gus Poyet for his versatility and selflessness, an underappreciated attribute common with that of many scapegoated players.

The animosity directed toward Ashley Barnes was at times so high that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he was top scorer for the Albion in the 2011/12 season, ahead of Albion’s then record signing Craig Mackail-Smith and helping to fill the gap left by Glenn Murray after his move to Crystal Palace the previous summer.

It’s interesting that both of these players have found a place at Sean Dyche’s Burnley, a proudly unfashionable side who are not afraid to play a style of play which is more physical and less easy on the eye, but one that values these usually underappreciated players like Barnes and Stephens.

Sean Dyche seems confident in his own mind with what he wants from his side and unapologetically unconcerned in trying to please supporters. In 2019 he commented after receiving some criticism for his teams style of play that: “I’m always a bit confused with what the masses want now…But I don’t mind a tackle, I don’t mind a challenge. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s a thing of society. If you get touched now, it’s like everyone’s dead, everyone’s properly dead. I just find that peculiar, I don’t know where that’s all at.”

It may not please people aesthetically, but Dyche’s Burnley sides more physical style of play and squad of underappreciated players have consistently been overachieving since promotion to the topflight when you take into consideration their relatively meagre resources.

Maybe Dyche’s own career has shaped his views in this regard. In his own career he earned a reputation as a no-nonsense centre back and made a move to Bristol City at the age of 26 in what was a big move for both him and the club at the time. Unfortunately, during his time there he struggled with injuries and was often singled out by supporters for criticism when he did play. After 20 appearances in 18 months he was first loaned to Luton before being sold to Millwall, where he was far better accustomed.

However, it’s often the strikers like Barnes and Connolly which tend to get the brunt of fans criticism as they are the ones who miss the game changing chances to score goals. Score and you’re a hero forever, as the likes of Glenn Murray, Bobby Zamora, Peter Ward or Tommy Cook show. But as the contrasting examples of Connolly and Barnes show, this is far from always the case.

Some players are able to deal with the criticism better than others. Former Albion striker Mark McCammon once called into the BBC Sussex’s post game phone-in to argue his case after feeling unfairly criticised by supporters and the phone-in host Ian Hart. Whereas most others choose to do their talking on the pitch.

Whilst, McCammon actively went out of his way to listen to the phone in and take on the criticism he was receiving before infamously phoning in, players are now being directly contacted by users for abuse, simply as a result of having a social media presence.

As Sean Dyche admitted back in 2017 things are very different now. “The game has radically changed off the pitch. It is a whole different profession now, even to when I was playing. I just think it (social media) opens up an unnecessary moment… Unfortunately with life, often people want to vent. And if they have got a chance to vent directly at you… well, I just wouldn’t put myself up for that. That’s my view on social media.”

If more people don’t learn to cut out the online abuse and social media platforms don’t start introducing more severe punishments for those who don’t, we will likely see more footballers go the way of Sean Dyche and Aaron Connolly and just not engage with it at all. Which would be a huge negative for an industry which is becoming more and more detached from its consumers by the day.