by Nia Griffiths
Does being a ‘fan favourite‘ give players leverage over their club and, in some cases, even immunity from criticism?
Some players choose to distance themselves from fans. They make do with the odd, obligatory victory tweet or apology after a game, and other than that don’t really connect with the people who chant their name on a Saturday. Some don’t even do that.
However, some make it their life’s mission to make friends with the fans. They find out the club’s mantras, slogans, sayings. They learn the songs, do question and answer sessions. Learn about the area, the history of the club; past players, important results, rivalries.
He scores when he wants, he scores when he waaaaants…
Lukas Podolski is an example of the latter. Hot off the heels of the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United, the fans needed a talisman. A shining beacon of light in what had been a pretty cruddy transfer window. And boy did Poldi deliver.
He took buses around London in order to ‘connect’ with the area the fans came from – albeit with club photographer in tow.
He tweeted the fans, came up with his own hashtags and proclaimed his love for the team.
When linked with Tottenham Hotspur in 2014, he tweeted:
— Lukas-Podolski.com (@Podolski10) October 20, 2014
As a result, he became a fan favourite (even before the aforementioned tweet). He had a couple of songs that would be roared over the din of the opposing fans. His Twitter following skyrocketed.
When Poldi was dropped to the bench, his popularity became clear as his name echoed out around the Emirates. Boos rang out if he was substituted off and Gooners crashed their hands together with glee as he warmed up.
Arsene Wenger became public enemy number one (again) and various different stat resources began churning out figure pertaining to the fact that the German was actually the best forward at the club. Or in the league. Ever.
This is where all the forward’s tweeting, communicating and campaigning for the club came into play. He’d somehow managed to turn the fans against a manager who’d been at the club for almost 20 years, onto the side of someone who’d been there less than two.
However, did it work?
In short, no. Poldi has now left for Turkish club Galatasaray after a season long loan at Inter Milan.
This therefore begs the question, how important is the relationship between players and the fans?
In the past, it was a little different. Fans tended to fall in love with players who performed on the pitch. The players who were banging in goals week in, week out, like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. Or the defenders who were putting their bodies on the line to prevent them the other end – see Tony Adams. Even Sol Campbell held a soft spot in people’s heart after joining from Spurs.
However, it was a different age. Social media wasn’t anywhere to be seen so players didn’t have the platform they have now to connect with fans. This can work for and against modern footballers, especially youngters who haven’t received the right amount of media training – or common sense for that matter – to know what not to say to their millions of followers.
On the plus side, they get to share their lives with fans. Let them have a glimpse of what they get up to off the pitch. Fans get to see them as real people. But on the flip side again, this has given fans a huge sense of entitlement. A need to know everything. A thirst for knowledge because they believe that it being attainable automatically gives them a right to it. Private lives are leaked and plastered over social media, which in turn hits the newspapers for web clicks.
Dirty laundry is aired publicly and once it’s out there, it can’t be shoved back in.
A professional relationship
Having a relationship between the players and fans can be hugely beneficial for the club. How many times have you heard the fans being referred to as the 12th man?
If the fans feel a connection, especially on a personal level, to the footballers, they will in turn keep them driving the team on. It’ll keep them turning up, buying tickets and chanting for the squad. Social media is a great way of establishing this connection.
However, where this backfires is where the line is crossed; where the fourth wall is breached. Where people feel they can be abusive, over-share or demand things from footballers who are simply there out of choice to connect to the people who have their names printed on the back of their jerseys.
In order words, to answer my initial question, the relationship between footballers and fans can be important, as long as it doesn’t overshadow the club itself.