Mourinho Sacking: Paul Pogba social media storm shows football still has lots to learn

This is a guest post by David Randles is a senior lecturer in Sports Journalism at the University of Chester / @davidrandles

When Mick McCarthy referred to his Wolves players as ‘twits who tweet’, Wes Brown was the incumbent of Manchester United’s number 6 shirt. “Players are going to get themselves into trouble over Twitter”, said McCarthy following one of his player’s revelatory tweets that ultimately led to the collapse of a move for then Aston Villa player Steve Sidwell.

Fast forward seven years and the now Republic of Ireland boss might have uttered “I told you so” at United’s current number 6’s Twitter and Instagram activity in the immediate aftermath of Jose Mourinho’s sacking (on Tuesday morning).

The decision to post a picture of a smirking Paul Pogba with the words “caption this” to his 6.1m twitter followers and 30m+ Instagram followers was guaranteed to gain maximum exposure. In light of the morning’s events, it was also nailed on to attract the kind of negative responses that saw both posts swiftly deleted within minutes of being published.

With the image and handles used corresponding with an Adidas promotional event in Paris on Monday where Pogba joined former Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala, was this simply a case of bad timing for the France international rather than a thinly veiled parting shot at Mourinho?

Confirmation from @adidassoccer later cleared Pogba of any blame by stating the posts were part of a scheduled event in a marketing campaign and were removed when it became apparent as to how they might be taken out of context.

Still, the initial damage was done. Gary Neville’s “You can do one, too” tweet appeared as one of the more measured responses among droves of colourful language from United fans urging the underperforming World Cup winner to follow The Special One through the exit door.

With social audience engagement rising year-on-year, athletes and those responsible for their online presence need to be acutely aware of the implications of everything they post.

While the Football Association delivers summary guidance on social media best practice to all clubs from the Premier League through to Step 4, every club in the Premier, Football and National League are offered an educational visit.

The reality is that the offer of such visits is often only taken up as a kneejerk reaction when things go wrong, as was the case with Tranmere Rovers in the aftermath of striker James Norwood’s controversial Instagram post the Christmas before last. But that was at National League level where resources, budgets and training are scarce.

The vast majority of Premier League clubs provide in-house training to players and staff or, as was the case with McCarthy at Wolves, a media law firm will be drafted in to highlight the potential pitfalls of social media misconduct.

We have come a long way since Ashley Cole referred to the FA as a #bunchoftwats in the fallout of the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand racism episode. And who can forget Victor Anichebe pasting the words of Sunderland’s media officer into a tweet to his fans, or Joleon Lescott ‘accidentally’ posting a photograph of his top of the range Mercedes in the wake of online abuse following Aston Villa’s 6-0 defeat to Liverpool.

And yet mistakes continue to be made. See Kenedy on Chelsea’s pre-season tour of China last season, or Mamadou Sakho’s Anfield frustration played out publicly on Snapchat before being loaned out to Crystal Palace never to return.

As unwitting as it now seems, Pogba and his account managers have discovered the hard way how easy it is to fall foul of social media’s effective self-policing capability.

The negative reaction to the “caption this” posts soon attracted the attention of the national sports media who, like many United fans, were quick to condemn Pogba.

As it happened, it turned some attention away from Mourinho as the player became a sub-plot to the headline story for a few hours at least. The irony of how this inadvertent diversionary tactic backfired on a player who was instrumental to Mourinho’s downfall will not be lost on the Portuguese.

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