Home Sports OLIVER HOLT:  Manchester United's priorities lie in appearance not reality

OLIVER HOLT:  Manchester United's priorities lie in appearance not reality

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Soon after Manchester United had been embarrassed by City last week, intensifying the debate over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position as manager, United’s midfielder Bruno Fernandes posted a message on Twitter showing a group of men laughing uproariously.

‘Gooood vibes,’ it said. Presumably, the extra 0s were meant as a nod to the number of goals his team had scored that day.

And the number of goals they had scored against Liverpool in the previous home game. The Tweet was met with a mixture of incomprehension, ridicule and anger. And then it was deleted.

Manchester United don’t seem to trust their players to be themselves on social media

CEO of media Phil Lynch has been criticised since he opened up on methods the club uses with players on social media

CEO of media Phil Lynch has been criticised since he opened up on methods the club uses with players on social media 

It turned out the picture was of five Arsenal players including Gabriel Martinelli and Mohamed Elneny and that it was intended for Martinelli’s Twitter feed, not Bruno’s. 

A social media manager somewhere had made a mistake. That’s what happens when you try to blur the line between appearance and reality. That’s what happens when you appoint someone else to create an idealised, saccharine, dull, unbelievable version of you.

United have a CEO of media to deal with this kind of stuff. His name is Phil Lynch and it seems his job is to turn players into people he thinks we want them to be. Actually, we want them to be themselves but United don’t trust them to be themselves. 

So they massage their image as lovingly and meticulously as if it were a piece of that premium grade meat you pay for in smart restaurants. And they throw in cynicism for the seasoning.

‘We pull, twice a day, fan sentiment graphs for every one of our players,’ said Lynch in an interview, instantly breaching the cardinal rule of PR that you must never become the story. 

‘We have certain thresholds that alert us when we see fan sentiment going one way — be that a personal issue, an on-pitch performance issue — and when that happens, we then start to work with the player and his team individually to try and counter that narrative a little bit.’

Gary Neville slated the CEO of media saying that he's 'creating robots on and off the pitch'

Gary Neville slated the CEO of media saying that he’s ‘creating robots on and off the pitch’

So it turns out most player Twitter feeds are just the online version of a Porsche Cayenne with blacked out windows. Another barrier. Another thing to separate players and public. Another thing to keep the supporters out, not let them in. Another thing to buy them off. It is fake. It is a construct.

There are not many positive aspects of social media but the idea that it allows direct contact between player and fans is one of them. That has always been one of the reasons for its growth.

The kind of social engineering being pioneered by Lynch and his like destroys that in an instant. When you don’t believe what you are reading is written by the person who is supposed to have written it, why read it at all?

Gary Neville has been forthright about this image manipulation. He said it was ‘creating robots on and off the pitch’ and he was right. ‘Without your own identity, you are nothing,’ he said, and he was right. 

A tweet meant for Gabriel Martinelli’s account was published on Bruno Fernandes’ social media page

United's social media strategy is distancing the gap between players and the public

United’s social media strategy is distancing the gap between players and the public

‘What we have with footballers is them wanting to have their cake and eat it,’ he said, ‘proclaiming it to be authentic when it is their management team’s words.’

At a time when so many footballers — Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Marcus Rashford, Tyrone Mings, Troy Deeney and others — have emerged as genuine and powerful voices for social change, this attempt to use players as empty vessels for corporate blandspeak has felt particularly unfortunate and regressive.

Maybe the players who have fallen into this trap and allowed themselves to be manipulated should remember the message from the FA’s handling of England’s squad before and during the 2018 World Cup. 

Gareth Southgate and an innovative, forward-thinking communications team at the FA broke with tradition and allowed every player to speak to the media at St George’s Park, without media handlers present. 

Part of the idea was that if a player takes responsibility for his decisions off the pitch, he will be better placed to take responsibility on the pitch, too. It seemed to work.

The result was uniformly positive. The public listened to the players’ stories or read about them, unvarnished and real. They heard about the obstacles many of them had had to overcome, and they felt they could identify with them. 

Lynch's comments came at the wrong time especially with United's recent run of form

Lynch’s comments came at the wrong time especially with United’s recent run of form

It was a seminal moment. Or it should have been. But it felt too much like a loss of control for clubs and so men like Lynch were brought in to ‘counter’ narratives.

I feel a little for Lynch. He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. To use a phrase he might be familiar with, he didn’t read the room. United fans, in particular, have grown heartily sick of the stream of trite apologies issued by players like Bruno and Harry Maguire on social media after defeats. Someone, somewhere, thought a ‘narrative’ needed to be ‘countered’.

United players, of course, are not alone in having their social media accounts managed for them. It is just that because they have such big followings and because the team is under-performing this season, they are coming under more scrutiny. And there is also the perception that, at United, everything is false. Everything is about image. Everything is smoke and mirrors.

United’s board, under outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, are obsessed with image. Remember when, to general amusement, they signed Odion Ighalo from Shanghai Shenhua last year and their managing director Richard Arnold boasted that the transfer was the top trend on Twitter ahead of Brexit and President Trump’s impeachment case. It was pointed out to him it was only the top trend because United fans were so appalled.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a luxury signing which could lead to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer getting the sack

Solskjaer's job is under huge pressure after recent defeats to their biggest rivals

Solskjaer’s job is under huge pressure after recent defeats to their biggest rivals

United’s priorities lie in appearance, not reality. That is why the social media farrago has struck such a chord. It sums up everything that has gone wrong at the club since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Louis van Gaal was a manager on the downslope when he was appointed but he was a big name so he got the job. The same applied to Jose Mourinho.

And the same applies to Cristiano Ronaldo. Never mind the age, feel the page visits. Ronaldo is one of the greats and it is a privilege to watch him play, but he is a luxury in a team that cannot afford one. His signing might have been a commercial masterstroke but it has brought United’s resurgence to a grinding halt. It is the signing that will get Solskjaer the sack.

And when that happens, we’ll all be taking bets on which player gets his Twitter apology in first.

Apology tweets have become the norm for United in the opening months of the season

Apology tweets have become the norm for United in the opening months of the season

Gerrard didn’t leave Rangers for a bigger club 

Scottish football was good for Steven Gerrard and Steven Gerrard was good for Scottish football. They helped each other. He worked for three and a half years at Ibrox and rebuilt Rangers so that they won the league and are once again bona fide challengers to Celtic.

However much some may wish to patronise the Scottish game, there are few places where Gerrard could have learned so much about managing under constant pressure and scrutiny as he did in the midst of the Old Firm rivalry. 

I don’t buy the idea that he left for a bigger club when he left for Aston Villa. But he did leave for a big club that plays its football in a bigger league with better players and in his home country.

Scottish football was good for Steven Gerrard but joining Aston Villa shows his ambition

Scottish football was good for Steven Gerrard but joining Aston Villa shows his ambition

Continuing the resurrection of Villa represents another huge challenge. Gerrard has the authority and the intelligence to make it work and his signing is a statement of ambition from Villa.

As for the idea that Villa represents a ‘stepping stone’ on Gerrard’s journey back to Anfield? Let’s be honest, every job represents a stepping stone for every manager. 

If Gerrard does well enough to earn a shot one day at becoming the manager of a club where he is a legend, then he will have had to put Villa in a very good place to get there. If he succeeds, he will move on. If he fails, Villa will sack him. It’s the way it works.

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