The professional footballer species evolved to make television its natural habitat.
The great film critic, David Thomson, writing in his book, remarked on the way players gradually worked their skills into performances, knowing “they are part of a system of close-ups and slow-motion”.
Footballers have always adapted to their surroundings. As a youngster, Thomson watched Jimmy Greaves in a heaving Stamford Bridge, “like a sparrow floating over the mud”. He saw television make players “more fastidious about their appearance”, start crafting elaborate celebrations, and become models “who endorse other products and dreams”.
Writing five years ago, Thomson hadn’t yet encountered some of the modern evolutions of the species, such as the way players now habitually cover their mouths when talking to one another, to shut television out of their conversations.
A practice that, as Clarence Seedorf highlighted this week, may have to be banned if players continue to do it while saying racist things.
What else might Thomson have noted if he was writing of today’s football, now an exclusively television event, staged to honour broadcast contracts?
He’d have something to say, no doubt, about the fake crowd noise, football’s answer to canned laughter, or as he called it, “mechanised euphoria”.
“This is perhaps the most hateful thing about TV: that it removes from the audience its great prerogative of deciding which performers are good and which are not.”
But he’d have been struck too, surely, by the way players have swiftly catered for the new silence they experience.
Anguish has been cranked up on the decibel meter. Pain has been pantomimed in great existential cries for attention.
And Thomson would have admired how the language of those corner flag gatherings after a goal has been cleaned up pre-watershed. Just one year into football without crowds, it’s all semi-verbal yelping and braying now, and there are very few ‘facking get ins’.
There has been, of course, the odd difficulty.
Manchester United, we learned this week, have, if anything, adapted too well to their surroundings and disappeared entirely into the backdrop created especially for television.
Fortunately, in another landmark week for the Can’t See, Can’t Be mantra, Ole has belatedly found a solution, and changed the colour of the Old Trafford set so they can find one another again.
If footballers have, by and large, settled like snow — as Keith Andrews might say — on television, can the same be said for social media?
To look back now to the end of 2010, and a piece I wrote on the rise of football Twitter, is to revisit an age of innocence.
Footballers were living the dream in this new arena and had simply transplanted a slightly sanitised version of their everyday bantering onto social. Hoovering up the dopamine hits from follows and retweets with only the odd gaffe making the headlines to serve as a cautionary tale.
I was struck by the carefree inanity of a typical exchange among Bolton players following a poor training performance by Ivan Klasnic.
@iviklas you were horrible today bro.
@studolden he was terrible!!!
There was a sense that footballers would now have greater control over how the world saw them, would no longer be reliant on the TV camera lens. And they have certainly made social media work in terms of endorsing ‘other products and dreams’.
But how did a decade bring us from there to this week’s controvassy, with Phil Foden issuing a mild ‘Are you ready?’ warning to Kylian Mbappe via his social channels ahead of their Champions League semi-final meeting, then swiftly deleting it and reportedly sacking his media content ‘people’.
The correspondence didn’t, seemingly, hit the tone Phil was hoping for.
Even for the social media pros, achieving the right tone is a precarious balancing act given football’s voracious appetite for banter and equally notorious thirst for precious outrage and a tendency to take itself way too seriously.
Latest to tumble off the tightrope was the admin of the Dulux Twitter account, who celebrated a new sponsorship deal with Tottenham by joking about the club’s empty trophy cabinet.
We can only imagine the terse phone calls and heated Zooms before apologies were issued, investigations announced, and Spurs attempted to paint a suitably banterous line under the episode. “We’ll gloss over it this time…”
Halfway through the decade, Victor Anichebe signalled the end of innocence with the most famous of all football tweets: “Can you tweet something like…Unbelievable support yesterday and great effort by the lads! Hard result to take! But we go again!”
Since that day, we are no longer surprised when Joe Hart wakes up the morning after Spurs’ Europa League exit to admit it was his social team that had mistakenly celebrated a 3-0 win.
It means Dani Ceballos will get no credit for the rousing words on his channels that undoubtedly drove Arsenal to victory in Prague: “Like Sir Winston Churchill once said: ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
These are profiles, not people, to us now. And must be virtually unusable to the people behind them, clogged as they are with torrents of abuse.
Even the most social of all footballers, Paul Pogba, is turning back to TV. His ‘Pogmentary’ deal with Amazon Prime promises never-seen-before footage from his youth. Turns out even the man with 44 million followers had been keeping his best stuff back for a medium you can trust.
Still, it was nice to see Pogs’ old sparring partner, Jesse Lingard, still plugging away this week, strutting his stuff on his personal stage, dancing in the West Ham dressing room to Michael Jackson.
Lings has adapted better than most to this strange habitat.
Alas, an uglier spectacle was also with us — as somebody captured Neil Lennon the worse for wear and invaded his privacy on our behalf across the networks of the world.
A reminder that on a stage where you can never turn off the cameras, social becomes a toxic prison from which there’s no escape.