The Other Side of the Avatar: Inside the World of Football Social Media

From non-league to Champions League, every football club now has a plethora of social media accounts. But who are the people behind the avatars? We spoke to Tottenham's former social media manager to find out.

Raj Bains

"There's no routine, it's constant. I'd try to get in about half eight to nine in the morning, and then the players would all start to appear at different times after that. Midweek games would be the same, you'd just work all the way through until the post-match was done. But social is just that, it's an addictive field, and you have to be committed to the industry."

Roberto Kusabbi, pictured above with André Villas-Boas, was the social media manager at Tottenham Hotspur for just over a year, a time in which he was given access to backstage areas of the game that very people are permitted to. Having worked in sports science and talent identification beforehand, he knew what to expect from football, but that didn't mean his time in the game was all plain sailing.

On his first day covering a home Premier League fixture in the role, Tottenham surrendered a one goal advantage late on against a West Brom side they were expected to beat. It wasn't long before a crudely photoshopped tweet began doing the rounds.

"This is funny now... but it wasn't at the time!" he laughs. "I'd already worked in social for five years by this point, but this was my first home league game. It was Villas-Boas' first game at home too, so the buzz inside the club was amazing and there was a lot of pressure on the club from all angles."

The game had gone to plan for the most part, both on and off the field. Tottenham looked well set to see out a narrow victory, only to fall short in the final minutes.

"So I put the full-time tweet out. Obviously anyone with photoshop can do [the above] and I started getting lots of concerned texts and tweets from friends, because this thing started being shared around quite a bit. As soon as I saw it, it was obvious that it was a fake, but I remember sending an email to one of my directors to explain. But the club were fine with it."

Stepping into a role in the most heavily marketed league in the world and trying to grow various social media channels just as the medium was just starting to take off, the photoshop was far from an ideal start to the job.

"I went out for dinner later on that day and the whole thing pretty much ruined my night. More than anything, it was really annoying, because it was so obviously fake. I learnt a lot around that time though, and once you've worked in football, you can just about work anywhere".

That, in short, is the life of a football social media manager. Amplified by the tribal nature of the game, you need an incredibly thick skin to be on the receiving end of some of those tweets and comments. Go now, actually, and click on the last tweet sent by any Premier League club you want and read through the replies. Chances are, you've just scrolled through enough profanity to script a new series of The Thick Of It —and that's far from abnormal.

Roberto described the experience as "like working in a newsroom", something he'd done before getting into social media. The trouble was, he said, that everything they wanted to do was entirely results dependent. Scheduled, created content could get burnt solely on whether or not the club won or lost, with fan reaction the main concern. Speaking to one of Roberto's former colleagues, the sentiment was shared.

"There was a game I remember around Halloween — after we'd put in several days' worth of effort to create a prank video that we had already edited and had ready to go — where one of the decisive penalties had fallen to Kyle Walker, who was central to that piece of content."

As the presenter SpursTV for almost two and a half years, Tim Love worked alongside Roberto during the same period at Tottenham, and shared many of his experiences.

"I remember just being sat in the stands watching him step up, praying that he scored, because I felt like we couldn't put the video out if he missed. And the sad thing is, it was only because I knew we'd just get absolutely rinsed by our own fans and anyone else wanting to take a pop if we did, but that's just the way it is".

It seems the reason so many clubs are bad at social, and the reason we get so much watered down content coming from them, is because those running the accounts are aware of just how much abuse can be created from one slightly misjudged piece of output. Having worked on the other side of the divide for BBC Sport before joining Spurs, it quickly became clear to Tim exactly why that was.

"When I was at BBC Sport I used to wonder why all you'd ever hear from players and clubs were such mundane things, but having seen the abuse they'd get otherwise and sharing their perspective, you get a better appreciation for it."

Roberto pointed more to the backward nature of brand identity in sport.

"I don't think bad social is exclusive to just football clubs, but they've got the reverse situation of most brands. Sports teams already had engaged fans in existence before their online presence was even created, whereas most brands start from scratch looking for an audience to sell to".

It wasn't, of course, all bad. Far from it, actually. Roberto seemed pleased with the experience both personally and professionally, while being quick to point out that "at the end of the day, travelling around watching football and being paid to do it is pretty fun." Tim remembered his first day at the training ground, and being taken over to meet Gareth Bale in the canteen. "It was like 'fucking hell', this is one of the best players on the planet, and here I am watching him eat his lunch'".

The nature of the game seems to have taken its toll, however, as both now work in completely different fields within social. Roberto has moved on to work with PlayStation in Europe, joining shortly before the PS4 launch, while Tim helps run things for Pizza Express across their various channels. When asked, Roberto said he'd consider working for a Premier League club again if the offer was right, while Tim suggested it wasn't something he'd be interested in revisiting any time soon.

Why leave football, then? Surely the trade off between working so closely with these athletes at the top of their game, watching them perform across Europe and being paid for the privilege cancels out the long hours and torrent of anonymous people calling you a cunt online — right?

"After a few years, I just started to lose the love for the sport, which is ultimately why I moved out of the field" Tim told us. "You're lucky in that you're working in all of these amazing stadiums every week, but what's come out of it for me is that all I want to go to now are tiny grounds. I spend a lot of time at Wingate and Finchley, where there's only about a hundred fans or something, and it's far less sanitised than the Premier League experience, obviously. From what I understand, Roberto has dabbled with going to Leyton Orient now too, even though he's a Spurs fan".

In a job where your hard work being seen is reliant on Tottenham winning, it's no surprise that people don't tend to hang around for long. It provides a reminder though: the next time you see a football club post something that isn't to your taste, there isn't a vacuum through which your abuse will victimlessly vanish. There's a team of people monitoring it, doing their jobs as best they can, just like we all do.