Back to mine: why we still talk about footballers in the language of the pit

They may earn millions and drive Maseratis but today’s footballers are still described using old working-class terminology. It’s the last link with the game’s roots. 

Calling urbane, European managers such as André Villas-Boas "the gaffer" verges on surreal. Photo: Getty
Calling urbane, European managers such as André Villas-Boas "the gaffer" verges on surreal. Photo: Getty

In a sparkling recent column in these pages, Hunter Davies examined football’s fraudulent use of language. He pointed out that although footballers earn millions and drive Maseratis, their lives must still be described using old working-class terminology.

Any player who stays at a club for longer than the duration of a holiday in the Maldives is described as a “fantastic servant”. It is as though, in Hunter’s phrase, “he hadn’t been paid and had just been given food and lodgings, forced to sleep under the grandstand and wash his own kit”.

My favourite football cliché is the ubiquitous “He’s really put in a shift” – a commentator’s euphemism for: “He’s run around a lot today.” What was he supposed to do in return for £200,000 a week? Sit down in the centre circle and meditate?

It’s not just football. County cricket still tolerates the tradition of the “benefit year”, which permits players, who have driven to the ground in German saloon cars, to arrange plastic buckets to be passed around the stands, where pensioners rummage around in their purses for a couple of quid to throw into the whip-round. In the 1930s, when clubs treated professional players like tradesmen, the benefit year helped the seasoned pro settle into a well-earned retirement. Today’s pros have the protection of an effective union and EU employment law, as well as a lot more money.

Football is even more obsessed with retaining and celebrating its working-class origins. This is particularly odd when applied to the new breed of urbane, sophis­ticated and (usually) European manager. Yet we must still call him the “gaffer”. It is unclear exactly what Pep Guardiola (a devotee of Catalan poetry) and André Villas-Boas (the great-grandson of a viscount), with their skinny-fit suits, cashmere V-necks and multilingual panache, have in common with a factory foreman from Queen Victoria’s heyday.

The terror of the half-time team talk is another part of folklore. We are still led to believe that, at the sound of the whistle, 11 balletic young men, most of whom are far more at home eating tuna carpaccio with the Eurotrash crowd in Knightsbridge than unwrapping cod and chips, walk into the dressing room feeling like terrorised orphans in a Charles Dickens novel.

In reality, they will sip on isotonic sports drinks while listening to the kind of complex tactical information that football coaches – aided by their crew of quants and data gurus – now marshal into strategic decision-making. Backstage in elite sport these days has more in common with Nasa’s HQ than a coal mine.

Meanwhile, footballers have become spectacularly wealthy, though their astronomic annual salaries must still be expressed as a weekly wage – a mark of respect to their working-class predecessors. The equivalent salaries dished out by Goldman Sachs are never divided into working men’s chunks, so we remain unfamiliar with the phrase: “Lloyd Blankfein, who earns £8,000 per shift as CEO, answered questions about the bank’s profits . . .”

The players who entertain us so spectacularly in the Champions League and the Premier League – though this point holds more for non-British players – often do not fit the old template of boy-made-good. Kaká and Andrés Iniesta, for example, stayed on in school after the age of 16.

It is certainly true, both here and abroad, that the social composition of the fans has shifted. There is still guilty talk about the “authenticity” of football crowds but they are increasingly drawn from the middle classes. When a season ticket to watch Arsenal costs £1,470, they have to be. Those who can afford it still cough up, bemoaning the trend while not seeing the contradiction. “The tourist is the other fellow,” as Evelyn Waugh once said.

Meanwhile, as an inspiration to thoughtful critics, football has become one of the most sophisticated manifestations of contemporary culture. Jonathan Wilson or Simon Kuper’s forensic analysis of the strategic feints and counterpunches of Mourinho and Guardiola will probably be the most intelligent article you read in the newspaper.

Given all this, why do the old linguistic stereotypes endure? I would take Hunter’s thesis one step further. In the 25 years or so that I’ve been watching televised football, the obsession with working-class terminology has increased sharply. There are more “good shifts”, “gaffers” and “loyal servants” around than ever before. The language of industrial perspiration has hardened into the game’s collective mythology.

So industrial language is not a hangover from the past, an accidental residue that will one day die out. It is a willed, semi-deliberate aspect of football’s identity. Language always has a point, even if it is to obscure reality rather than to clarify it. As the players get richer and their social backgrounds broader, as the crowd becomes wealthier and more detached from the local community, as the writers dazzle intellectually – all this must be counterbalanced by constant references to a simpler, earthier time, when men were real men and hard-working defenders toiled away at the coalface (the tic is contagious), fearing a clip round the ear from the gaffer if they got caught napping on the job and let that whippet of an opposition winger get goal-side.

Roy Hodgson – a civilised and thoughtful man who relaxes by reading Philip Roth novels and who talks wistfully about the view from his old balcony overlooking the Italian lakes – now prepares to take our boys to Brazil for the World Cup. What else can we say to them beyond: “Don’t punch out unless you’ve got the job done and brought home the goods”?

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)