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'Put the phone down' - Victory keen to control dark side of social media

Grant Brebner gestures during a Melbourne Victory match Source: AAP

Melbourne Victory coach Grant Brebner, goalkeeper Matt Acton and defender Storm Roux have described how those at the club have sought to approach social media during the club’s poor run of form - especially when the ‘feedback’ crosses the line.

Despite grounding Newcastle Jets last weekend - the club’s first win since February - Victory remain rooted to the bottom of the A-League table heading into Saturday’s Melbourne Derby; on pace to record a worst-ever finish in the club’s history.

That low-point, should it be set, would replace one established just a season ago, when Victory finished second-bottom.

While much of the ire from fans across social media in the face of this predicament has increasingly been turned against the club’s board and higher-ups, the nature of modern social media means it’s inevitable that players and coaches also feel the heat.

Most of this feedback, the players, coaches and staff at Victory freely admit, is simply a part of the modern game and, in the face of poor performances this season, justified by fans that pour both emotion and money into supporting the club.

But as is the case for most things online, this passion and feedback can often snowball and, with the benefit of anonymity so easily sourced, lines are inevitably crossed by a very small, contemptible minority.

Victory defender Adama Traore, for example, was racially abused on Twitter following a Victory defeat earlier this season; mirroring ugly incidents around the league such as the abuse directed towards Adelaide United youngster Kusini Yengi and the Western Sydney Wanderers' Bernie Ibini.

Adelaide captain Stefan Mauk received death threats on Instagram, as did numerous players on a W-League side after losing a game.

“It’s something that… as a club as a whole, we have an obligation to help and educate our players on what social media can look like,” Victory coach Brebner told The World Game.

“We all like to scroll through our different platforms and do whatever we need to do and get whatever we need to get out of it but there is that side of it that, if you go looking for it, you’ll find it.

“Regardless, some players have thick skins, and some, for every 100 comments saying you’re fantastic, they’ll take the one or two that are derogatory as a problem.

“We can’t tell players what to do but we can certainly advise of shutting it down.

“We can’t tell players to come off social media just because there are people out there that want to say things, but I think it’s just about having a better understanding for the player when he’s posting whatever he needs to post.

“I [played] through a UK press where the reporters themselves were pretty brutal in their assessment of your performance but there was nothing in your private life.

“Whereas in social media, there are a lot more areas to attack.”

Brebner’s not alone in expressing his reservations about the potential abuse his players can be on the receiving end of on social media.

"It's something that the coaches need to speak to the players about and the clubs need to take more on board: the individual dealing with social media,” Socceroos’ boss Graham Arnold said late last year.

“When I was at Sydney FC, I worked so hard, and I still do with the Socceroos boys, about getting off social media.

"Not looking at it and not listening to it and not letting it affect your life and not being in a position where you're listening to people you don't even know. Because it can affect your confidence, it can affect your form, it can affect everything.

"It's something that the coaches need to look at, not only tactics and training sessions, but there is also a personal side of what the individual goes through at home.”

What the scourge of online abuse can do to a youngster was on stark display during the 2019-20 off-season, when former Victory midfielder Josh Hope cited ugly abuse he had received on social media as one of the reasons he had made the decision to step away from football; describing how it had sapped his love of the game.

“It comes from the older players, the experienced players,” Roux said about the dressing-room guidance that is offered surrounding social media.

“If there are any problems, put the phone down, don’t read the comments and try and be the best player you can be.

“I don’t think there’s anything positive about reading social media comments, especially when you’re a young player: it can really affect your game and your confidence.

“So my advice is to stay away from it as much as possible. Sadly, there are players like Hopey where they don’t enjoy the game anymore - which is very sad to lose players from social media comments.

“It is a big talking point in the game. Every sport has that problem.

“The older you get, you learn to block it out, or you use it as fuel or if it does affect you it depends on the person.

“Personally, I don’t read too much into it. You keep it in-house, work on it at training and don’t let it affect you too much outside, otherwise you’d go crazy.

“I guess it is part of the game now with social media, in any professional sport it’s a big topic. For me, I’ve learnt to block it out the older I got.”

“I’ve got two kids at home so I’m a busy man,” Victory keeper Acton continued. “I don’t have time to be reading Twitter or Instagram comments.

“It’s one of those things. It’s part of being a professional footballer. You’re going to get opinions and critics from all around. It’s about dealing with that in your own way. For me, I can only speak for myself, I’ve learnt how to deal with it.”

Roux and Acton both admit, however, that the rapidly evolving nature of technology and communications mean that the landscape confronting young players is significantly different than the one they came through - despite the pair both being just 28 years old.

“As a professional athlete, you can’t escape it, it’s on every device,” Acton said. “Everywhere you look you’re on social media or whatever it might be.

“I think it would be a good idea to start developing the young players as they’re coming through academies around guidance on social media platforms because it’s everywhere you look these days.

“The earlier they can be exposed to dealing with it, the better for them as they develop.

“When I started out there wasn’t any social media.

“It’s something that the young guys [have to deal with] and if academies, with support of the PFA, if they can be on board helping these guys, I can only see it as a positive thing in their development off the pitch.”