Twitter deletes provocative Jones tweet after intervention from United
Online persecution of Manchester United player has gone beyond humour into a much darker area
Manchester United yesterday insisted that a provocative tweet that appeared to invite abuse of Phil Jones (right) from one of Twitter’s official in-house feeds @TwitterUK be deleted on the grounds it breached the social media giant’s own guidelines around harassment.
The tweet that was posted at 8.56pm on Tuesday evening by the @TwitterUK account, which has more than 454,000 followers, said: “Name a better footballer than Phil Jones”, a social media construct that many interpreted as an invitation to criticise United’s 28-year-old England international defender.
United, who have more than 22.6million Twitter followers, and Jones’s representatives submitted a report yesterday and the tweet was deleted.
A Twitter spokesperson said last night: “It was not our intention to cause upset. Once we realised our mistake, we immediately deleted the tweet.”
‘Name a better footballer than Phil Jones.” The construct is a social media trope: an invitation to a pile-on, angled to elicit a storm of replies ever more absurd and vitriolic, driven onwards into an eruption of thousands of sub-quarrels along football’s tribal lines that generate the precious engagement. All of it running from the principle of the original tweet itself. That the world – or at least the world according to Twitter – believes there are lots of footballers better than Phil Jones.
It is old-fashioned social media bullying that one might half expect of the dismal online bookmaker accounts, whose pursuit of the lamentable banter comes with all the charm of the lone drunk in the carriage of the last train home. But this tweet, later deleted, was posted on Tuesday night to its 454,000 followers by the account of @TwitterUK.
In terms of schoolyard bullying you might say it was the equivalent of taking one in the chops from the cheery lady in admin who normally only concerns herself with photocopying privileges and uplifting pictures of cats.
The selection for ridicule of Jones, 28, who has not played for Manchester United since Jan 26 and is unavailable for the Europa League campaign because of injury, is no great surprise, even though he has not tweeted since October 2017. This latest random act of persecution may have its roots in the video posted by Bob Mortimer on Aug 7, which has 945,000 views and counting, in which the comedian imagines, over two minutes, Jones playing in the aforementioned Europa League final.
Hard to apply the usual rules to Mortimer. He is funny, and that should be all that matters – right? Mortimer is held in the kind of esteem that he could pick any target he liked, in any part of British public life, and his followers would shower him in the usual cascade of approval.
The finale is brutal and Mortimer is a hard man to keep a straight face around. Yet Jones has had years of this already and suddenly here he is again, the victim of a joke.
It is not fair or right that he is treated this way. For a good footballer with a recently unfulfilled career at the highestprofile club in the Premier League, this hijacking of his public sphere is the result of a strange confluence of factors. There are his contorted playing expressions that were never captured on the faces of players before the era of pin-sharp sports photography. There is his part in the relative mediocrity of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years – although his honours board is by no means shabby. There are the ground-level defensive headers.
When he took his overall record of goals for United and own goals against United in the Premier League and Europe to four of each with one of the latter against Valencia in December 2018, I note that I tweeted that the 4-4 totals felt like the eternal battle for his soul.
Football’s exposure of human frailty is one of the savage pleasures of the game, although in the case of Jones, we could all pause for a moment. The connection between the man in the memes and the living, breathing human seems to have been lost.
This is a father, and a husband, and a son. Like every footballer, he, too, has a career and aspirations and an agent who can fight back on his behalf. Although at times it must feel like trying to push back the ocean with a sandcastle mould bucket.
The means to redemption on the pitch has been closed off by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Jones’s treatment has not always been fair. He started for the first time in the league last season against Sheffield United on Nov 24 on the left side of a three-man defence. It was a new system with little preparation and when that inevitably failed to work he was replaced at half-time with the team trailing 1-0.
Between then and a start against Manchester City at home in the League Cup on Jan 7, Jones was given 22 minutes as a substitute against Alkmaar.
Despite that, Jones acquitted himself well in a sobering derby defeat for United, one of the few players in red shirts who did not disappear. He bought a Kevin De Bruyne feint for the third goal, but plenty others have, too. At times he might have wondered if he was being set up to fail. Out of the team again, back in for the defeat by Burnley on Jan 22, and since then nothing but one FA Cup appearance.
Despite his well-trailed injury problems, Jones has still averaged 24 appearances a season over 11 years at Blackburn Rovers and United. The three years remaining on his contract give him and his family financial security. How to fix the rest is a more complex question.
He would be a good signing this summer for a club looking for experience. The success of Chris Smalling at Roma has shown that there is a life away from the scrutiny at United, where a distorted view of how smooth the Ferguson years were, peddled by a small army of former United players now in punditry, makes expectation frankly unreasonable.
It would need a club prepared to value Jones as a player, rather than fear the social media backlash were they to announce him as a signing.
None of that should matter. He should be judged as a footballer.
But in weeks like these, the social media persecution feels so all-pervasive that Jones may wonder whether its influence reaches out from beyond its grotesque construct of a world and affects his prospects in the real one.
The connection between the man in the memes and the living human seems to have been lost
Derided: Phil Jones has suffered via social media