'Social media mob wanted me and my family dead': Portsmouth starlet on fearing for his life after wrongly accused of racist Snapchat comments about England trio

Dan Gifford defied police advice on the rare occasion, albeit driven through desperation to escape his suffocating Emsworth prison.

Thursday, 28th July 2022, 6:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th July 2022, 6:29 pm

Multiple death threats had condemned the promising Pompey striker to house arrest, a fortnight largely confined to his bedroom, admittedly for his own safety.

Sometimes there was a brief dash for freedom, with the 17-year-old slipping out under darkness for a clandestine visit to the local Co-op, identity concealed by black hoodie pulled over the head and face mask obligingly obscuring his features.

A social media lynch mob had arrested, charged and convicted Gifford in his absence, sparking Hampshire Constabulary fears of vigilante reprisals against an innocent man.

It captured racist comments directed at England’s Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in the aftermath of the Euro 2020 final penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy.

The controversy dominated national headlines, but legal reasons prevented the identity of those responsible being revealed.

Amid the information vacuum and absence of verified facts, fingers were incorrectly pointed at Gifford, a member of that Snapchat group.

Dan Gifford has put the awful experiences of 12 months ago behind him to forge ahead with his promising Pompey career. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

He became the victim of mistaken identity – and the subject of threats on his and his family’s life.

Social media is an extremely dangerous place. People wanted me dead, they wanted my parents dead, yet I was innocent,’ Gifford exclusively told The News in his first interview on the frightening experiences from 12 months ago.

‘There were hundreds of threats on my life through social media. Actually, if anything, that figure is probably an understatement. It was insane.

‘I was aged 17 and my name was all over Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, accused of something which I had absolutely nothing to do with. People had made up their minds.

Dan Gifford in action against the Hawks in Pompey's opening pre-season friendly of 2022. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

‘Some messages hoped I got cancer, I saw that one quite a few times, others wanted me to be involved in a car accident. Apparently I was also going to hell.

‘Then there were the more menacing ones such as “Who do you think you are? Wait until I get hold of you, wait until I see you”.

‘They also wished my family would die, hoped for my house to burn down, for my parents to be hit by a train - or a bus. Everything you could imagine was probably sent to my phone at one point or another.

‘In another instance on social media, a guy threatened me, so I replied with proof that he was mistaken. He came back an hour or two later: “Sorry mate, you’re a great player. All the best for your career”.

Dan Gifford warming up before Pompey's Papa John's Trophy encounter at AFC Wimbledon in September 2021 - his maiden first-team involvement. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

‘About a month after the allegations came out, I’d been for dinner with friends in Portsmouth and we were walking back towards the train station when a guy, who was obviously quite drunk, confronted me in the street.

‘He got right into my face, threatening me, swearing at me, repeatedly saying “You’re a racist”. My mates had to step in and break it up, trying to explain to him what had actually happened.

‘It wasn’t just me either, my oldest sister Emily, who was studying at Bath University at the time, even received threats. It was stuff like “How can you bear to be part of this family?” or “How can your brother be as awful as this?”.

‘We can only presume people found her through looking up our surname on Facebook, then discovering pictures of me on her profile. It was a crazy time.

‘I was caught in the crossfire. As it was a group chat, some assumed we were all fine with comments being made. We were not.’

Following the July 2021 emergency of the Snapchat comments, Pompey acted.

Dan Gifford fights to retain possession against Bristol City's Ryley Towler in the recent behind-closed-doors friendly. Picture: Rogan/Fever Pitch

A club statement said: ‘Portsmouth Football Club are fully committed to the elimination of all forms of discrimination.

‘We are part of a diverse community and are dedicated to promoting an environment of equality and inclusion at all times – both inside the football club and in our wider society.

‘We also continue to respectfully appeal for everyone’s consideration in their use of social media posts directed towards any of the club’s employees and any other external parties.’

In the meantime, Gifford’s promising Fratton Park career continued to flourish amid the ongoing social media backlash.

He added: ‘At the time of those Snapchat posts, I was at my friend’s house in Drayton watching the Euros final. You don’t go on your phone when you’re watching that. By the time I got home, I went to sleep, so never read the chat.

‘Those chats usually involve asking what time training is or if there was a photographer at the game, with people then posting in links to pictures. Nobody really spoke that much on it.

‘Those particular messages happened on the Sunday night – and we had no idea about the consequences until the Wednesday morning.

‘I was woken up by my mum and dad knocking on my door to tell me. I put my phone on and it was going crazy. What’s all this about? Then your heart drops to the bottom of your chest when you discover what’s occurred.

‘It turned out someone had screenshotted the chat, sent it to a friend and it eventually made national news.

‘Wednesday was our education day, which involved attending the Pompey Study Centre in Anson Road as part of our B-Tech Level 3 Diploma in Sport. By the time we arrived, the story was everywhere.

‘There was a TV in the room – and it came up on the BBC news, right in front of us.

‘It was decided to send us home early and, from that point, nobody was allowed to see each other or talk to each other. We also didn’t train for two weeks.

‘Soon I started receiving threats through social media, so the police were made aware. A police car turned up at our house a few times, just to check how we were and whether I’d received any other messages.

‘They advised me to stay at home, I wasn’t allowed out, not even to go for a run to keep fit. I lost my mind being stuck in my bedroom doing the same things over and over again.

‘I’d go on FIFA Soccer on my Xbox, watch YouTube, or play downstairs with my dog Billy, yet it was repetitive. I ended up heading to bed at 7-8pm every night as I had nothing else to do, I was so bored.

‘Becoming sick and tired of staring at the same walls, a couple of nights I popped into the Co-op at the end of my road. I just wanted the walk. Even then I was quite nervous, I was disguised but it felt that people were looking at me wherever I went, although they probably weren’t.

‘Initially I wasn’t allowed to go on public transport, I didn’t drive at that point so had to get a lift from my parents everywhere.

‘I was also advised not to wear any Pompey kit, so would come into training in my own clothes and get changed. The first-team can turn up in what they want, but those in the Academy are instructed to arrive wearing your tracksuit or kit.

‘Basically I was trying to hide away until things had died down.’

Irrespective of Pompey’s actions against the true culprits, for Gifford the stigma stubbornly lingered for several months.

Shrugging off the distresses of the summer, he subsequently netted three times in the opening four Academy fixtures of the 2021-22 campaign.

The reward was a place on Danny Cowley’s bench for a Papa John’s Trophy trip to AFC Wimbledon in September 2021, representing maiden first-team involvement.

However, it’s a treasured moment forever tainted by a subsequent social media barrage.

‘On the team coach after Wimbledon, I discovered that the announcement of the line-up had set people off again. There were also more threats on Instagram,’ he said.

‘It was stuff like “You racist, you shouldn’t be at the club. How has the club not dealt with this?”.

‘My journey home was spent reading these comments, trying to reply to some of them. None of my team-mates knew, I didn’t mention it to anyone.

‘Thankfully, after that match the messages stopped, it became once in a blue moon.

‘At the peak of the abuse, I would receive hundreds of notifications an hour, I was being tagged into everything.

‘For a period a time I tried to respond, explaining the truth. Some would reply with “Oh my gosh, I’m really sorry” but in the end there were too many - so I switched off all phone notifications and contacted friends purely through texts.

‘It got to the stage where each social media app had 999 unread messages, the maximum, whether it’s Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or Facebook.

‘Let’s face it, what was said by others in that Snapchat group was bad. Do people have a right to subsequently message you with threats? Of course not. But they have the right to be upset.

‘Even though I didn’t do it, I can understand their anger.

‘Yet while I was a little worried for my safety at first, after a while it occurred to me how ridiculous some of the messages were, these empty threats.

‘It’s all too easy to threaten somebody in a text or over social media.’

The pair, who cannot be named and are now aged 17 and 18, were being investigated over ‘a screenshot circulating on social media depicting discriminatory language’.

However, Hampshire Constabulary announced the duo had instead been handed conditional cautions.

As for Gifford, he finished the 2021-22 campaign with 24 goals in all competitions, including 10 during a productive loan spell with Isthmian League side Bognor.

Such eye-catching efforts warranted being named the Academy Player of the Season, while Nyewood Lane exploits saw him crowned the Rocks’ Most Improved Player.

The encouraging progress earned him a new Fratton Park deal and, on Tuesday night, the 18-year-old grabbed a last-gasp winner in Pompey’s friendly at Barnet.

Now, 12 months on, Dan Gifford is talked about on social media in glowing terms.

He added: ‘When the abuse was its most unpleasant, I soon learnt the best thing was to get off my phone.

‘I wanted to reply to these messages, to tell people that I wasn’t in the wrong, that it wasn’t me. But you just have to let people get on with it.

‘Not that I saw it at the time, all you’re thinking about is how your name is in tatters, but it’s only in the heat of the moment. It doesn’t last forever.

‘Eventually it gets sorted out, the right people are in trouble for what they have done – and others start to realise the truth.

‘The club always knew I was innocent, so I was never in trouble with them, and they handled everything very well and looked after me, which I’m so appreciative of.

‘However, that doesn’t stop you questioning whether they still want you around, whether they see you as trouble. But that was a wasted worry.

‘Luckily those abusing me didn’t get my phone number and nobody came to our house. My parents were still able to carry out their daily jobs, nobody really knows who they are.

‘It took time, but I’ve come through it. Thankfully, those who know me never believed what was written on social media. It’s not what I’m like.

‘But I suppose people on social media don’t know anything about the person they’re abusing. That’s the problem.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Dan Gifford scored 10 goals in 25 matches during a successful loan spell at Bognor in the second half of last season
Pompey's Dan Gifford in action against Gosport during the pre-season programme. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages