Twit­ter deletes provoca­tive Jones tweet after in­ter­ven­tion from United

On­line per­se­cu­tion of Manch­ester United player has gone be­yond hu­mour into a much darker area

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Sam Wal­lace cHIeF Foot­bALL WrIter

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

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