Beware cyber warriors

Michael Appleton
Michael Appleton

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The doyen of sports writers that is Patrick Collins recently spent a year following sports lovers across the world in his excellent read Among The Fans.

In it, Collins dedicates a chapter to the rise in popularity of radio phone-ins – specifically Radio 5’s 606 show.

He is of little doubt several managers have lost their jobs as a result of the flak flung in their direction by supporters eager to criticise on the air waves.

It’s an assessment which is undoubtedly true and one which has a particular resonance around these parts at present.

Alongside the phone-ins we have witnessed the evolution and growth of the web-based footie follower in years gone by – a place where there is a very significant and vocal Pompey community.

As journalists, a significant part of our role is to now interact with fans on the many platforms the internet offers.

It usually makes for lively debate, and the free speech it affords has to be championed, just like phone-ins.

It has been intriguing, however, to not only see the rise of the web warrior across the web chats, messageboards and social networking sites we now inhabit, but also the far-reaching impact their thoughts are having at PO4.

Take Steve Cotterill, for example. Ask the now departed Pompey boss whether he looked at stories online and he gave the notion short shrift.

Yet, it’s known Cotterill was a religious reader of and comments posted by fans.

Two of the biggest criticisms of him there was his steering away from playing 4-4-2 and the lack of pitch time for Ricardo Rocha.

It’s of little doubt to this observer that setting the wheels in motion on the changes he made on those fronts – before he left the club last month – was as a result of the online clamour.

It’s a similar story with players, who used to deny reading papers while angrily poring over the marks out of 10 they received after a game in the training ground canteen on a Monday.

Many also deny being silent lurkers of the online community while devouring what’s on offer.

Others, however, are now quite publicly embracing the web through the advent of Twitter.

It’s a development which has brought fans and players closer together – with positive and negative results.

Pompey defender Greg Halford has joined the Rio Ferdinand school of responsible tweeting, allowing him to build bridges with the club’s fanbase. On the flip side, however, are a whole host of cases of players being subjected to abuse from fans.

Players themselves have also fallen foul of being able to instantaneously give their views to the world in 140 characters.

Now the men at the very top at Fratton Park have their eyes trained on the musings – or rantings – of the digital Pompey fan.

Convers Sports Initiatives are forward-thinking folk and that has led to them embracing the web in their work. They have made it clear they are keen to listen to the Fratton faithful since assuming control, a stance to be applauded, and a significant part of that work has been in setting up interactive forums across social networking sites.

But then starts the debate about who they are listening to.

It’s an argument which has long raged among Blues followers.

Who are the web-based Pompey punters? What percentage are regular visitors to Fratton Park? Do their views accurately echo the masses?

In his book, Collins laments a phone-in caller condemning Roy Hodgson after five games in charge at Liverpool.

Well, that landmark was beaten by four matches on Saturday as some web warriors called for Michael Appleton to go.

It’s a ridiculous assessment launched from the comfort of the keyboard.

Yet, it is one which would have been heard by the Pompey hierarchy.

Among the eloquent and often witty posts from those based online will come those who simply want to make the most noise.

It’s a mindset which is in place in the stands, of course, but is delivered more readily and simply from a faceless position.

Yet, despite that anonymity, there is also undoubtedly an element of notoriety that arrives for those who hear their more extreme thoughts aired, perhaps even a thrill from cyber fingers being pointed in their direction.

It’s a characteristic the inimitable Collins detects in many sections of modern supporters – an increasing desire to be heard rather than observe.

It’s clear the football fan is evolving and the followers of the star and crescent are not immune to that change.