So Jermain Defoe has gone off to play in Toronto. He’s 31. That’s pretty young to pack in the Prem and possibly the chance of being in the England squad for Brazil. No more will he hear Spurs supporters shouting, “Jer-main Dee-foe, eeza Yid-ohhhh,” which will no doubt be a relief to him as it did lead to all sorts of explanations, distractions, defences and apologias.
And no more will we hear football commentators intone, “Jermain Defoe, he’s been a good servant to Spurs,” though the cliché will continue, perhaps for ever, till the last syllable of recorded Match of the Day. Vidic of Man United is off to Milan at the end of the season, so listen up for “What a fantastic servant!” every time he kicks the ball.
Anybody who stays at a club for more than half an hour these days is deemed to have been a loyal servant, making it sound as if he hadn’t been paid and had just been given food and lodgings, forced to sleep under the grandstand and wash his own kit.
When top bankers retire, no one ever says, “Oh, he’s been a great servant to HSBC,” as we all know that what he served was himself. The same is true of footballers but in football minds, old romantic notions of service linger on, along with ideas of fair play and sporting behaviour .We like to believe that they love the club badge – why else would they rub it so passionately, eh? All bollocks, of course.
The language of football retains many industrial references, harking back to the sport’s 19th-century beginnings and the years when footballers’ contracts imprisoned them, stopped their freedom of movement and imposed a maximum wage.
Their wages are still expressed in weekly terms, as if they were members of the old working classes. Wayne Rooney, we have been told, is now to get £300,000 – per week. No mention is ever made of what that might be as an annual salary. It would take up too much space, for a start, but it’s really because we like to believe all professional footballers are still workers on weekly wages, like bus drivers.
Frank Lampard, “a fantastic servant to Chelsea” for about 100 years, is also said to have a “great engine”, another accolade with industrial overtones. All footballers, if they are not knackered when the final whistle blows, are praised for having put in “a good shift”. Down the mines or on the factory floor?
Van Persie, should he miss a sitter, will have been expected to score because he “has that in his locker”, as if he worked in a factory and had his overalls and tools safely put away.
When Jack Wilshere makes another rash tackle (which, alas, he won’t be doing for another few months now), the commentator will excuse his clumsiness by describing it as “an agricultural challenge”. This conjures up images of him as a 19th-century peasant with straw sticking out of his ears who has come to the big city.
Football managers all over the UK are referred to by their players as “the gaffer”, an Industrial Revolution term for foreman or overseer in charge of a group of labourers (the word is thought to be a 16th-century corruption of “godfather”). Outside of the building site, it’s only among footballers that the term has been retained. Other archaic phrases live on. A ball will miss the goals by inches, not centimetres, and players will be a yard too slow. You even hear references to a skilled player being able to “turn on a sixpence”. What’s a sixpence, Grandad? In Scotland, they admire a “tanner ba’ player” – a tanner being an old sixpence.
Perhaps the old language lingers on because footballers are in some senses still members of the working classes. That’s where they have come from and how they still see themselves. They get bossed around, live in fear of the sack, are told when to go to bed, get fined for misdemeanours. Very much like old servants. Except for their millions . . .